Read CHAPTER 9 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

Sally Bent came willingly, even eagerly.  It was the eagerness of an angry woman who wanted to talk.

“What is your name?”

“A name you’ll come to wish you’d never heard,” said the girl, “if any harm comes to John Gaspar.  Poor Jig, they won’t dare to touch a hair of your head!”

With a gentle voice she had turned to Gaspar to speak these last words.  A faint smile came on the lips of Gaspar, and his gaze was far away, as if he were in the midst of an unimportant dream, with Sally Bent the last significant part of it all.  The girl flushed and turned back to Riley.

“I asked you your name,” said his honor gravely.

“What right have you to ask me my name, or any other question?”

“Mr. Lodge,” said his honor, “will you loosen up and tell this lady where we come in?”

“Sure,” said the judge, clearing his throat.  “Sally, here’s the point.  They ain’t been much justice around here.  We’re simply giving the law a helping hand.  And we start in today on the skunk that shot Quade.  Quade may have had faults, but he was a man.  And look at what done the killing!  Sally, I ask you to look!  That bum excuse for a man!  That Gaspar!”

Following the command, Sally looked at Gaspar, the smile of pity and sympathy trembling on her lips again.  But Gaspar took no notice.

“How dare you talk like that?” asked Sally.  “Gaspar is worth all seven of you put together!”

“Order!” said Riley Sinclair.  “Order in this here court.  Mr. Sergeant-at-arms, keep the witness in order.”

Larsen strode near authoritatively.  “You got to stop that fresh talk, Sally.  Sinclair won’t stand for it.”

“Oscar Larsen,” she cried, whirling on him, “I always thought you were a man.  Now I see that you’re only big enough to bully a woman.  I — I never want to speak to you again!”

“Silence!” thundered Riley Sinclair, smiting his hard brown hands together.  “Take that witness away and we’ll hang Gaspar without her testimony.  We don’t really need it — anyways.”

There was a shrill cry from Sally.  “Let me talk!” she pleaded.  “Let me stay!  I won’t make no more trouble, Mr. Sinclair.”

“All right,” he decided without enthusiasm.  “Now, what’s your name?”

“Sally Bent.”  She smiled a little as she spoke.  That name usually brought an answering smile, particularly from the men of Sour Creek.  But Sinclair’s saturnine face showed no softening.

“Mr. Clerk, swear the witness.”

Judge Lodge rose and held forth the book and prescribed the oath.

During that interval, Riley Sinclair raised his head to escape from the steady, reproachful gaze of John Gaspar.  Down in the valley bottom, Sour Creek flashed muddy-yellow and far away.  Just beyond, the sun gleamed on the chalk-faced cliff.  Still higher, the mountains changed between dawn and full day.  There was the country for Riley Sinclair.  What he did down here in the valleys did not matter.  Purification waited for him among the summit snows.  He turned back to hear the last of Sally Bent’s voice, whipping his eyes past Gaspar to avoid meeting again that clinging stare.

“Sally Bent,” he said, “do you know the prisoner?”

“You know I know him.  John Gaspar boards with us.”

“Ah, then you know him!”

“That’s a silly question.  What I want to say is — ”

“Wait till you’re asked, Sally Bent.”

She stamped her foot.  Quietly Sinclair compared the girl and the accused man.

“Here’s the point,” he said slowly.  “You knew Quade, and you knew John Gaspar.”


“You know Quade’s dead?”

“I’ve just heard it.”

“You didn’t like him much?”

“I used to like him.”

“Until Gaspar blew in?”

“You’ve got no right to ask those questions.”

“I sure have.  All right, I gather you were pretty sweet on Quade till Gaspar come along.”

“I never said so!”

“Girl,” pronounced Riley solemnly, “ain’t it a fact that you went around to a lot of parties and suchlike things with Quade?”

She was silent.

“It’s the straight thing you’re giving her,” broke in Larsen.  “After Gaspar come, she didn’t have no time for none of us!”

“Ah!” said his honor significantly, scowling on Sally Bent.  “After you cut out Quade, he got ugly, didn’t he?”

“He sure did!” said Sally.  “He said things that no gentleman would of said to a lady.”

“Such as what?”

“Such as that I was a flirt.  And he said, I swear to it, that he’d get Gaspar!” She stopped, panting with excitement.  “He wanted to murder John Gaspar!”

Riley Sinclair lifted his heavy brows.  “That’s a pretty serious thing to say, Sally Bent.”

“But, it’s the truth!  And I’ve even heard him threaten Gaspar!”

“But you tried to make them friends?  You tried to smooth Quade down?”

“I wouldn’t waste my time on a bully!  I just told John to get a gun and be ready to defend himself.”

“And he done it?”

“He done it.  But he never fired the gun.”

“What was the last time Quade seen you?”

“The day before yesterday.  He come up here and told me that he knew me and John Gaspar was going to get married, and that he wouldn’t stand still and see the thing go through.”

“But what he said was right, wasn’t it?  Gaspar had asked you to marry him?”

She dropped her head.  “No.”

“What?  You mean to say that Gaspar hadn’t told you he loved you?”

“Never!  But now that John’s in this trouble, I don’t care if the whole world knows it!  I love John Gaspar!”

What a voice!  What a lighted face, as she turned to the prisoner.  But, instead of a flush of happiness, John Gaspar rose and shrank away from the outstretched hands of the girl.  And he was pale — pale with sorrow, and even with pity, it seemed to Sinclair.

“No, no,” said the soft voice of Gaspar.  “Not that, Sally.  Not that!”

Decidedly it would not do to let this scene progress.  “Take away the witness, Montana.”

Montana drew her arm into his, and she went away as one stunned, staring at John Gaspar as if she could not yet understand the extent of the calamity which had befallen her.  She had been worse than scorned.  She had been rejected with pity!

As she disappeared into the door of her house, Sinclair looked at the bowed head of John Gaspar.

“Denver!” he called suddenly.

“Yes, your honor.”

“The prisoner’s hands are tied.  Wipe the sweat off’n his face, will you?”


With a large and brilliant bandanna Montana obeyed.  Then he paused in the midst of his operation.

“Your honor.”


“It ain’t sweat.  It’s tears!”

“Tears!” Riley Sinclair started up, then slumped back on his stump with a groan.  “Tears!” he echoed, with a voice that was a groan.  “John Gaspar, what kind of a man are you?”

He turned back to the court with a frown.

“Mr. Jury,” he said, “look at this prisoner we got.  Look him over considerable.  I say, did you ever see a man like that?  A man that ain’t able to love a girl like Sally Bent when she just about throws herself at his head?  Is he worth keeping alive?  Look at him, and then listen to me.  I see the whole of it, Mr. Jury.”

Buck Mason leaned forward with interest, glowering upon John Gaspar.

“This skunk of a John Gaspar gets Sally all tied up with his sappy talk.  Gets her all excited because he’s something brand new and different.  Quade gets sore, nacherallike.  Then he comes to Gaspar and says:  ‘Cut out this soft talk to Sally, or I’ll bust your head.’  Gaspar don’t love Sally, but he’s afraid of Quade.  He goes and gets a gun.  He goes to Quade’s house and tries to be friends.  Quade kicks him out.  Gaspar climbs back on his hoss and, while he’s sitting there, pulls out a gun and shoots poor Quade dead.  Don’t that sound nacheral?  He wouldn’t marry Sally, but he didn’t want another man to have her.  And he wouldn’t give up his soft berth in the house of Sally’s brother.  He knew Quade would never suspect him of having the nerve to fight.  So he takes Quade unready and plugs him, while Quade ain’t looking.  Is that clear?”

“It sure sounds straight to me,” said Buck Mason.

“All right!  Stand up.”

Mason rose.

“Take off your hat.”

The sombrero was withdrawn with a flourish.

“God’s up yonder higher’n that hawk, but seeing you clear, Buck.  Tell us straight.  Is Gaspar guilty or not?”

“Guilty as hell, your honor!”

A sigh from the prisoner.  The last of life seemed to go from him, and Sinclair braced himself to meet a hysterical appeal.  But there was only that slight drooping of the shoulders and declining of the head.

It was an appalling thing for Sinclair to watch.  He was used to power in men and beasts.  He understood it.  A cunning devil of a fighting outlaw horse was his choice for a ride.  “The meaner they are, the longer they last,” he used to say.  He respected men of evil as long as they were men of action.  He was perfectly at home and contented among men, where one’s purse and life were at constant hazard, where a turned back might mean destruction.

To him this meek surrender of hope was incomprehensibly despicable.  If he had hesitated before, his hard soul was firm now in the decision that John Gaspar must die, and so leave Sinclair’s own road free.  With all suspicion of a connection between him and Quade’s death gone, Riley could play a free hand against Sandersen.  He turned a face of iron upon the prisoner.

“Sandersen and Denver Jim, bring the prisoner before me.”

They obeyed.  But when they reached down their hands to Gaspar’s shoulders to drag him to his feet, he avoided them with a shudder and of his own free will rose and walked between them.

“John Irving Gaspar,” said Sinclair sternly, “alias Jig, alias Cold Feet — which is a fitting and proper name for you — have you got anything to say that won’t take too long before I pronounce sentence on you?”

He had to set his teeth.  The sad eyes of John Gaspar had risen from the ground and fixed steadily, darkly upon the eyes of his judge.  There was infinite understanding, infinite patience in that look, the patience of the weak man, schooled in enduring buffets.  For the moment Sinclair almost felt that the man was pitying him!

“I have only a little to say,” said John Gaspar.

“Speak up then.  Who d’you want to give the messages to?”

“To no living man,” said John Gaspar.

“All right then, Gaspar.  Blaze away with the talk, but make it short.”

John Gaspar raised his head until he was looking through the stalwart branches of the cottonwood tree, into the haze of light above.

“Our Father in Heaven,” said John Gaspar, “forgive them as I forgive them!”

Riley Sinclair, quivering under those words, looked around him upon the stunned faces of the rest of the court; then back to the calm of Gaspar.  Strength seemed to have flooded the coward.  At the moment when he lost all hope, he became glorious.  His voice was soft, never rising, and the great, dark eyes were steadfast.  A sudden consciousness came to Riley Sinclair that God must indeed be above them, higher than the flight of the hawk, robed in the maze of that lofty cloud, seeing all, hearing all.  And every word that Gaspar spoke was damning him, dragging him to hell.

But Riley Sinclair was not a religious man.  Luck was his divinity.  He left God and heaven and hell inside the pages of the Bible, undisturbed.  The music of the schoolteacher’s voice reminded him of the purling of some tiny waterfall in the midst of a mountain wilderness.

“I have no will to fight for life.  For that sin, forgive me, and for whatever else I have done wrong.  Let no knowledge of the crime they are committing come to these men.  Fierce men, fighters, toilers, full of hate, full of despair, full of rage, how can they be other than blind?  Forgive them, as I forgive them without malice.  And most of all, Lord God, forgive this most unjust judge.”

“Louder!” whispered Sinclair, his hand cupped behind his ear.

“Amen,” said John Gaspar, as his head bowed again.  The fascinated posse seemed frozen, each man in his place, each in his attitude.

“John Gaspar,” said his honor, “here’s your sentence:  You’re to be hanged by the neck till you’re dead.”

John Gaspar closed his eyes and opened them again.  Otherwise he made no move of protest.

“But not,” continued Sinclair, “from this cottonwood tree.”

A faint sigh, indubitably of relief, came from the posse.

Riley Sinclair arose.  “Gents,” he said, “I been thinking this over.  They ain’t any doubt that the prisoner is guilty, and they ain’t any doubt that John Gaspar is no good, anyway you look at him.  But a gent that can put the words together like he can, ought to get a chance to talk in front of a regular jury.  I figure we’d better send for the sheriff to come over from Woodville and take the prisoner back there.  One of you gents can slide over there today, and the sheriff’ll be here tomorrow, mostlike.”

“But who’ll take charge of Gaspar?”

“Who?  Why me, of course!  Unless somebody else would like the job more?  I’ll keep him right here in the Bent cabin.”

“Sinclair,” protested Buck Mason, “you’re a pretty capable sort.  They ain’t no doubt of that.  But what if Jerry Bent comes home, which he’s sure to do before night?  There’d be a mess, because Jerry’d fight for Gaspar, I know!”

“Partner,” said Riley Sinclair dryly, “if it come to that, then I guess I’d have to fight back.”

It was foolish to question the power in that grave, sardonic face.  The other men gave way, nodding one by one.  Secretly each man, now that the excitement was gone, was glad that they had not proceeded to the last extremity.  In five minutes they were drifting away, and all this time Sinclair watched the face of John Gaspar, as the sorrow changed to wonder, and the wonder to the vague beginnings of happiness.

Suddenly he felt that he had the clue to the mystery of Cold Feet.  As a matter of fact John Gaspar had never grown up.  He was still a weak, dreamy boy.