Read CHAPTER 10 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

The posse had hardly thrown its masks to the wind and galloped down the road when Sally Bent came running from the house.

“I knew they couldn’t,” she cried to John Gaspar.  “I knew they wouldn’t dare.  The cowards!  I’ll remember every one of them!”

“Hush!” murmured Gaspar.  His faint smile was for Riley Sinclair.  “One of them is still here, you see!”

With wrath flushing her face, the girl looked at Riley.

“How do you dare to stay here and face me — after the things you said!”

“Lady,” replied Sinclair, “you mean after the things I made you say.”

“Just wait till Jerry comes,” exclaimed Sally.

At this Sinclair grew more sober.

“Honey,” he said dryly, “when your brother drops in, you just calm him down, will you?  Because if him and Gaspar together was to start in raising trouble — well, they’d be more action than you ever seen in that cabin before.  And, after it was all over, they’d have a dead Gaspar to cart over to Woodville.  You can lay to that!”

It took Sally somewhat aback, this confident ferociousness.

“Them that brag ain’t always the ones that do things,” she declared.  “But why are you staying here?”

“To keep Gaspar till the sheriff comes for him.”

Sally grew white.

“Don’t you see that there’s nothing to be afraid of?” asked John Gaspar.  “See how close I came to death, and yet I was saved.  Why, God doesn’t let innocent men be killed, Sally.”

For a moment the girl stared at the schoolteacher with tears in her eyes; then she flashed at Riley a glance of utter scorn, as if inviting him to see what an angel upon the earth he was persecuting.  But Sinclair remained unmoved.

He informed them of the conditions of his stay.  He must be allowed to keep John Gaspar in sight at all times.  Only suspicious moves he would resent with violence.  Sally Bent heard all of this with openly expressed hatred and contempt.  John Gaspar showed no emotion whatever.

“By heaven,” declared Sinclair, when the girl had gone about some housework, “I’d actually think you believed that God was on your side.  You talk about Him so familiar — like you and Him was partners.”

John Gaspar smiled one of his rare smiles.  He had a way of looking for a long moment at another before he spoke.  All that he was about to say was first registered in his face.  It was easy to understand how Sally Bent had been entrapped by the classic regularity of those features and the strange manner of the schoolteacher.  She lived in a country where masculine men were a drug on the market.  John Gaspar was the pleasant exception.

“You see,” explained Gaspar, “I had to cheer Sally by saying something like that.  Women like to have such things said.  She’ll be absolutely confident now, because she thinks I’m not disturbed.  Very odd, but very true.”

“And it seems to me,” said Sinclair, frowning, “that you’re not much disturbed, Gaspar.  How does that come?”

“What can I do?”

“Maybe you’d be man enough to try to break away.”

“From you?  Tush!  I know it is impossible.  I’d as soon try to hide myself in an open field from that hawk.  No, no!  I’ll give you my parole, my word of honor that I’ll make no escape.”

But Sinclair struck in with:  “I don’t want your parole.  Hang it, man, just do your best, and I’ll do mine.  You try to give me the slip, and I’ll try to keep you from it.  That’s square all around.”

Gaspar observed him with what seemed to be a characteristic air of judicious reserve, very much as if he suspected a trap.  A great many words came up into the throat of Riley Sinclair, but he refrained from speech.

In a way he was beginning to detest John Gaspar as he had never detested any human being before or since.  To him no sin was so great as the sin of weakness in a man, and certainly Gaspar was superlatively weak.  He had something in place of courage, but just what that thing was, Sinclair could not tell.

Curiosity drew him toward the fellow; and these weaknesses repulsed him.  No wonder that he stared at him now in a quandary.  One certainty was growing upon him.  He wished Gaspar to escape.  It would bring him shame in Sour Creek, but for the opinion of these men he had not the slightest respect.  Let them think as they pleased.

It came home to Riley that this was a man whose like he had never known before, and whom he must not, therefore, judge as if he knew him.  He softened his voice.  “Gaspar,” he said, “keep your head up.  Make up your mind that you’ll fight to the last gasp.  Why, it makes me plumb sick to see a grown man give up like you do!”

His scorn rang in his voice, and Gaspar looked at him in wonder.

“You’d ought to be packing yourself full of courage,” went on Sinclair.  “Here’s your pal, Jerry Bent, coming back.  Two agin’ one, you’ll be.  Ain’t that a chance, I ask you?”

But Gaspar shook his head.  He seemed even a little amused.

“Not against a man like you, Sinclair.  You love fighting, you see.  You’re made for fighting.  You make me think of that hawk.  All beak and talons, made to tear, remorseless, crafty.”

“That’s overrating me a pile,” muttered Riley, greatly pleased by this tribute, as he felt it to be.  “If you tried, maybe you could do a lot yourself.  You’re full of nerves, and a gent that’s full of nerves makes a first-class fighting man, once he finds out what he can do.  With them fingers of yours you could learn to handle a gun like a flash.  Start in and learn to be a man, Gaspar!”

Sinclair stretched a friendly hand toward the shoulder of the smaller man.  The hand passed through thin air.  Gaspar had slipped away.  He stood at a greater distance.  On his face there was a strong expression of displeasure.

Sinclair scowled darkly.  “Now what d’you mean by that?”

“I mean that I don’t envy you,” said Gaspar steadily.  “I’d rather have the other thing.”

“What other thing, Jig?”

Gaspar overlooked the contemptuous nickname, doubly contemptuous on the lips of a stranger.

“You go into the world and take what you want.  I’m stronger than that.”

“How are you stronger?” asked Riley.

“Because I sit in my room, and I can make the world come to me.”

“Jig, I was never smart at riddles.  Go ahead and clear yourself up with a few more words.”

The other hesitated — not for words, but as if he wondered if it might be worth while for him to explain.  Never in Riley Sinclair’s life had he been taken so lightly.

“Will you follow me into the house?” asked Gaspar at length.

“I’ll follow you, right enough,” said Sinclair.  “That’s my job.  Lead on.”

He was brought through the living room of the cabin and into a smaller room to the side.

Comfort seemed to fill this smaller room.  Bookcases ranged along one wall were packed with books.  The couch before the window was heaped with cushions.  There was an easy chair with an adjustable back, so that one could either sit or lie in it.  There was a lamp with a big greenish-yellow shade.

“This is what I mean,” murmured Jig.

Riley Sinclair’s bold eye roved swiftly, contemptuously.  “Well, you got this place fixed up pretty stuffy,” he answered.  “Outside of that, hang me if I see what you mean.”

Cold Feet slipped into a chair and, interlacing those fingers whose delicacy baffled and disturbed Sinclair, stared over them at his companion.

“I really shouldn’t expect you to understand, my friend.”

“Friend!” Sinclair exploded.  “You’re a queer bird, Jig.  What do you mean by ’friend’?”

“Why not?” asked this amazing youth, and the quiet of his face brightened into a smile.  “I’d be swinging from the end of a rope if it weren’t for you, you know.”

Sinclair shrugged away this rejoinder.  He trod heavily to the bookshelves, took up two or three random volumes, and tossed them heedlessly back into place.

“Well, kid, you’re going to be yanked out of this little imitation world of yours pretty pronto.”

“Ah, but perhaps not!”


“Something may happen.”

“What can happen?”

“Just something like you, my friend.”

The insistence on that word irritated Riley Sandersen.

“Don’t call me that,” he replied in his most brutal manner.  “Jig, d’you know what a friend means?” he asked.  “How d’you figure that word out?”

Jig considered.  “A friend is somebody you know and like and are glad to have around.”

Contempt spread on the face of Sinclair.  “That’s just about what I knew you’d say.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Son, they ain’t anything right about you, as far as I can make out.  Wrong?  You’re as wrong as a yearling in a blizzard.  Wrong?  I should tell a man you’re wrong!  Lemme tell you what a friend is.  He’s the bunkie that guards your back in a fight; he’s the man that can ask for your hoss or your gun or your life, no matter how bad you want ’em; he’s the gent that trusts you when the world calls you a liar; he’s the one that don’t grin when you’re in trouble, who gives a cheer when you’re going good.  With a friend you let down the bars and turn your mind loose like wild hosses.  I take out my soul like a gun and show it to my friend in the palm of my hand.  It’s sure full of holes and stains, this life of mine, but my friend checks off the good agin’ the bad, and when you’re through he says:  ’Partner, now I like you better because I know you better.’

“Son, I don’t know what God means very well, and I ain’t any bunkie of the law, but I’m tolerable well acquainted with what the word ‘friend’ means.  When you use it, you want to look sharp.”

“I really believe,” Jig said, “that you would be a friend like that.  I think I understand.”

“You don’t, though.  To a friend you give yourself away, and you get yourself back bigger and stronger.”

“I didn’t know,” said Jig softly, “that friendship could mean all that.  How many friends have you had?”

The big cowpuncher paused.  Then he said gently at length, “One friend.”

“In all your life?”

“Sure!  I was lucky and had one friend.”

Cold Feet leaned forward, eagerness in his eyes.  “Tell me about him!”

“I don’t know you well enough, son.”

That jarring speech thrust Jig back into his chair, as if with a physical hand.  There, as though in covert, he continued to study Sinclair.  Presently he began to nod.

“I knew it from the first, in spite of appearances.”

“Knew what?”

“Knew that we’d get along.”

“And are we getting along, Jig?”

“I think so.”

“Glad of that,” muttered the cowpuncher dryly.

“Ah,” cried John Gaspar, “you’re not as hard as you seem.  One of these days I’ll prove it.  Besides, you won’t forget me.”

“What makes you so sure of that?”

Jig rose from his chair and stood leaning against it, his hands dropped lightly into the pockets of his dressing gown.  He looked extraordinarily boyish at that moment, and he seemed to have the fearlessness of a child which knows that the world has no real account against it.  Riley Sinclair set his teeth to keep back a flood of pity that rose in him.

“You wait and see,” said Jig.  He raised a finger at Sinclair.  “I’ll keep coming back into your mind a long time after you leave me; and you’ll keep coming back into my mind.  Oh, I know it!”

“How in thunder do you?”

“I don’t know.  Just because — well, how did I understand at the trial that you knew I was innocent, and that you would let no harm come to me?”

“Did you know that?” asked Sinclair.

Instead of answering, Jig broke into his soft, pleasant laughter.