Read CHAPTER 11 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

“Laugh and be hanged,” declared Sinclair.  “I’m going outside.  And don’t try no funny breaks while I’m gone,” he said.  “I’ll be watching and waiting when you ain’t expecting.”  With that he was gone.

At the door of the house a gust of hot wind struck him, for the day was verging on noon, and there seemed more heat than light in the sun.  Even to that hot gust Sinclair jerked his bandanna knot aside and opened his throat gratefully.  He felt as if he had been under a hard nervous strain for some time past.  Cold Feet, the craven, the weak of hand and the frail of spirit, had tested him in a new way.  He had been confronting a novel and unaccountable thing.  He felt very oddly as if someone had been prodding into corners of his nature yet unknown even to himself.  He tingled from the rapier touches of that last laughter.

Now his eyes roamed with relief across the valley.  Heat waves blurred the hollow and pushed Sour Creek away until it seemed a river of mist — yellow mist.  He raised his attention out of that sweltering hollow to the cool, blue, mighty mountains — his country!

Presently he had forgotten all this.  He settled his hat on the back of his head and began to kick a stone before him, following it aimlessly.

Someone was humming close to him, and he turned sharply to see Sally Bent go by, carrying a bucket.  She smiled generously, and though he knew that she doubtless hated him in her heart and smiled for a purpose, he had to reply with a perfunctory grin.  He stalked after her to the little leaping creek and dipped out a full bucket.

“Thanks,” said Sally, wantonly meeting his eye.

As well try to soften a sphinx.  Sinclair carried the dripping bucket on the side nearest the girl and thereby gained valuable distance.  “I’m mighty glad it’s you and not one of the rest,” confided Sally, still smiling firmly up to him.

He avoided that appeal with a grunt.

“Like Sandersen, say,” went on the girl.

“Why not him?”

“He’s a bad hombre,” said the girl.  “Hate to have Jig in his hands.  With you it’s different.”

Sinclair waited until he had put down the bucket in the kitchen.  Then he faced Sally thoughtfully.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because you’re reasonable.”

“Did Jig tell you that?”

“And a pile more.  Jig says you’re a pretty fine sort.  That’s his words.”

The cowpuncher caressed the butt of his gun with his fingertips, his habitual gesture when in doubt.

“Lady,” he said at length, “suppose I cut this short?  You think I ain’t going to keep Cold Feet here till the sheriff comes for him?”

“You see what it would mean?” she asked eagerly.  “It wouldn’t be a fair trial.  You couldn’t get a fair jury for Jig around Sour Creek and Woodville.  They hate him — all the young men do.  D’you know why?  Simply because he’s different!  Simply because — ”

“Because all the girls are pretty fond of him, eh?”

“You can put it that way if you want,” she answered steadily enough, though she flushed under his stare.  Then:  “you’ll keep that in mind, and you’re man enough to do what you think is right, ain’t you, Mr. Sinclair?”

He shifted away from the hand which was moving toward him.

“I’ll tell you what,” he answered.  “I’m man enough to be afraid of a girl like you, Sally Bent.”

Then he saw her head fall in despair, as he turned away.  When he reached the shimmering heat of the outdoors again, he was feeling like a murderer.  His reason told him that Cold Feet was “yaller,” not worth saving.  His reason told him that he could save Jig only by a confession that would drive him, Sinclair, away from Sour Creek and his destined victim, Sandersen.  Or he could save Jig by violating the law, and that also would drive him from Sour Creek and Sandersen.

Suddenly he halted in the midst of his pacing to and fro.  Why was he turning these alternatives back and forth in his mind?  Because, he understood all at once, he had subconsciously determined that Cold Feet must not die!

The face of his brother rose up and looked into his eyes.  That was the friend of whom he would not speak to Jig, brother and friend at once.  And as surely as ever ghost called to living man, that face demanded the death of Sandersen.  He blinked the vision away.

“I am going nutty,” muttered Sinclair.  “Whether Sandersen lives or dies, Jig ain’t going to dance at a rope’s end!”

Presently Sally called him in to lunch, and Riley ate halfheartedly.  All during the meal neither Sally nor John Gaspar had more than a word for him, while they talked steadily together.  They seemed to understand each other so well that he felt a hidden insult in it.

Once or twice he made a heavy attempt to enter the conversation, always addressing his remarks to Sally Bent.  He was received graciously, but his remarks always fell dead, and a moment later Cold Feet had picked up the frayed ends of his own talk and won the entire attention of Sally.  Riley was beginning to understand why the youth of that district detested Cold Feet.

“Always takes some soft-handed dude to make a winning with a fool girl,” he comforted himself.

He expected the arrival of Jerry Bent before nightfall, and with that arrival, perhaps, there would be a new sort of attack on him.  Sally and Cold Feet were trying persuasion, but they might encourage Jerry Bent to attempt physical force.  With all his heart Riley Sinclair hoped so.  He had a peculiar desire to do something significant for the eyes of both Sally and Jig.

But nightfall came, and then supper, and still no Jerry appeared.  Afterward, Sinclair made ready to sleep in Jig’s room.  Cold Feet offered him the couch.

“Beds and me don’t hitch” declared Riley, throwing two or three of the rugs together.  “I ain’t particular partial to a floor, neither, but these here rugs will give it a sort of a ground softness.”

He sat cross-legged on the low pile of rugs, while he pulled off his boots and smoked his good-night cigarette.  Jig coiled up in a big chair, while he studied his jailer.

“But how can you go to bed so early?” he asked.

“Early?  It ain’t early.  Sun’s down, ain’t it?  Why do they bring on night, except for folks to go to sleep?”

“For my part the best part of the day generally begins when the sun goes down.”

With patient contempt Riley considered John Gaspar.  “You look kind of that way,” he decided aloud.  “Pale and not much good with your shoulders.  Now, what d’you most generally do with your time in the evening?”

“Why — talk.”

“Talk?  Huh!  A fine way of wasting time for a growed-up man.”

“And I read, you know.”

“I can see by the looks of them shelves that you do.  How many of them books might you have read, Jig?”

“All of them.”

“I ask you, man to man, ain’t they mostly somebody’s idea of what life is?”

“I suppose that’s a short way of putting it.”

“And I ask you ag’in, what’s better to take a secondhand hunch out of what somebody else thinks life might be, or to go out and do some living on your own hook?”

Cold Feet had been smiling faintly up to this point, as though he had many things in reserve which might be said at need.  Now his smile disappeared.

“Perhaps you’re right.”

“And maybe I ain’t.”  Sinclair brushed the entire argument away into a thin mist of smoke.  “Now, look here, Cold Feet, I’m about to go to sleep, and when I sleep, I sure sleep sound, taking it by and large.  They’s times when I don’t more’n close one eye all night, and they’s times when you’d have to pull my eyes open, one by one, to wake me up.  Understand?  I’m going to sleep the second way tonight.  About eight hours of the soundest sleep you ever heard tell of.”

Jig considered him gravely.

“I’m afraid,” he answered, “that I won’t sleep nearly as well.”

Riley Sinclair smiled.  “Wouldn’t be no ways nacheral for you to do much sleeping,” he agreed.  “Take a gent that’s in danger of having his neck stretched, like you, and most generally he don’t do much sleeping.  He lies around awake, cussing his luck, I s’pose.  Take you, now, Cold Feet, and I s’pose you’ll be figuring on how far a hoss could carry you in the eight hours that I’ll be sleeping.  Eh?”

There was a suggestive lift of the eyebrows, as he spoke, but before Jig had a chance to study his face, he had turned and wrapped himself in one of the rugs.  He lay perfectly still, stretched on one side, with his back turned to Jig.  He stirred neither hand nor foot.

Outside, a door slammed heavily; Cold Feet heard the heavy voice of Jerry Bent and the beat of his heels across the floor.  In spite of those noises Riley Sinclair was presently sound asleep, as he had promised.  Gaspar knew it by the rise and fall of the arm which lay along Sinclair’s side, also by the sound of his breathing.

Cold Feet went to the window and looked out on the mountains, black and huge, with a faint shimmer of snow on the farthest summits.  At the very thought of trying to escape into that wilderness and wandering alone among the peaks, he shuddered.  He came back and studied the sleeper.  Something about the nonchalance with which Sinclair had gone to sleep under the very eye of his prisoner affected John Gaspar strangely.  Doubtless it was sheer contempt for the man he was guarding.  And, indeed, something assured Jig that, no matter how well he employed the next eight hours in putting a great distance between himself and Sour Creek, the tireless riding of Sinclair would more than make up the distance.

Gaspar went to the door, then turned sharply and glanced over his shoulder at the sleeper; but the eyes of Sinclair were still closed, and his regular breathing continued.  Jig turned the knob cautiously and slipped out into the living room.

Jerry and Sally beckoned instantly to him from the far side of the room.  The beauty of the family had descended upon Sally alone.  Jerry was a swart-skinned, squat, bow-legged, efficient cowpuncher.  He now ambled awkwardly to meet John Gaspar.

“Are you all set?” he asked.

“For what?”

“To start on the trail!” exclaimed Jerry.  “What else?  Ain’t Sinclair asleep?”

“How d’you know?”

“I listened at the door and heard his breathing a long time ago.  Thought you’d never come out.”

Sally Bent was already on the other side of Gaspar, drawing him toward the door.

“You can have my hoss, Jig,” she offered.  “Meg is sure as sin in the mountains.  You won’t have nothing to fear on the worst trail they is.”

“Not a thing,” asserted Jerry.

They half led and half dragged Cold Feet to the door.

“I’ll show you the best way.  You see them two peaks yonder, like a pair of mule’s ears?  You start — ”

“I don’t know,” said Jig.  “It seems very difficult, even to think of riding alone through those mountains.”

Sally was white with fear.  “You ain’t going to throw away this chance, Jig?  It’ll mean hanging sure, if you don’t run now.  Ask Jerry what they’re saying in Sour Creek tonight?”

Jerry volunteered the information.  “They’re all wondering why you wasn’t strung up today, when they got so much evidence agin’ you.  Also they’re thinking that the boys played plumb foolish in turning you over to this stranger, Sinclair, to guard.  But they’re waiting for Sheriff Kern to come over from Woodville an’ nab you in the morning.  They’s some that says that they won’t wait, if it looks like the law is going to take too long to hang you.  They’ll get up a necktie party and break the jail and do their own hanging.  I heard all them things and more, Jig.”

John Gaspar looked uncertainly from one to the other of his friends.

“You’ve got to go!” cried Sally.

“I’ve got to go,” admitted Cold Feet in a whisper.

“I’ve got Meg saddled for you already.  She’s plumb gentle.”

“Just a minute.  I’ve forgotten something.”

“You don’t mean you’re going back into that room where Sinclair is?”

“I won’t waken him.  He’s sleeping like the dead.”

Jig turned away from them and hurried back to his room.  Having opened and closed the door softly, he went to a chest of drawers near the window and fumbled in the half-light of the low-burning lamp.  He slipped a small leather case into the breast pocket of his coat, and then stole back toward the door, as softly as before.  With his hand on the knob, he paused and looked back.  For all he knew, Sinclair might be really awake now, watching his quarry from beneath those heavy lashes, waiting until his prisoner should have made a definite attempt to escape.

And then the big man would rise to his feet as soon as the door was closed.  The picture became startlingly real to John Gaspar.  Sinclair would slip out that window, no doubt, and circle around toward the horse shed.  There he would wait until his prisoner came out on Meg, and then without warning would come a shot, and there would be an end of Sinclair’s trouble with his prisoner.  Gaspar could easily attribute such cunning cruelty to Sinclair.  And yet there was something untested, unprobed, different about the rangy fellow.

Whatever it was, it kept Gaspar staring down into the lean face of Sinclair for a long moment.  Then he went resolutely back into the living room and faced Sally Bent; Jerry was already waiting outdoors.

“I’m not going,” said Gaspar slowly.  “I’ll stay.”

Sally cried out.  “Oh, Jig, have you lost your nerve ag’in?  Ain’t you got no courage?”

The schoolteacher sighed.  “I’m afraid not, Sally.  I guess my only courage comes in waiting and seeing how things turn out.”

He turned and went gloomily back to his room.