Read CHAPTER 12 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

With the first brightness of dawn, Sinclair wakened even more suddenly that he had fallen asleep.  There was no slow adjusting of himself to the requirements of the day.  One prodigious stretching of the long arms, one great yawn, and he was as wide awake as he would be at noon.  He jerked on his boots and rose, and not until he stood up, did he see John Gaspar asleep in the big chair, his head inclining to one side, the book half-fallen from his hand, and the lamp sputtering its last beside him.  But instead of viewing the weary face with pity, Sinclair burst into sudden and amazed profanity.

The first jarring note brought Gaspar up and awake with a start, and he stared in astonishment at the uninterrupted flood which rippled from the lips of the cowpuncher.  It concluded:  “Still here!  Of all the shorthorned fatheads that I ever seen, the worst is this Gaspar — this Jig — this Cold Feet.  Say, man, ain’t you got no spirit at all?”

“What do you mean?” asked Gaspar.  “Still here?  Of course I’m still here!  Did you expect me to escape?”

Sinclair flung himself into a chair, speechless with rage and disgust.

“Did you think I was joking when I told you I was going to sleep eight hours without waking up?”

“It might very well have been a trap, you know.”

Sinclair groaned.  “Son, they ain’t any man in the world that’ll tell you that Riley Sinclair sets his traps for birds that ain’t got their stiff feathers growed yet.  Trap for you?  What in thunder should I want you for, eh?”

He strode to the window, still groaning.

“There’s where you’d ought to be, over yonder behind them mule ears.  They’d never catch you in a thousand years with that start.  Eight hours start!  As good as have eight years, kid — just as good.  And you’ve throwed that chance away!”

He turned and stared mournfully at the schoolteacher.

“It ain’t no use,” he said sadly.  “I see it all now.  You was cut out to end in a rope collar.”

Not another word could be pried from his set lips during breakfast, a gloomy meal to which Sally Bent came with red eyes, and Jerry Bent sullenly, with black looks at Sinclair.  Jig was the cheeriest one of the party.  That cheer at last brought another explosion from Sinclair.  They stood in front of the house, watching a horseman wind his way up the road through the hills.

“It’s Sheriff Kern,” said Jerry Bent.  “I can tell by the way he rides, sort of slanting.  It’s Kern, right enough.”

Sally Bent choked, but Jig continued to hum softly.

“Singin’?” asked Riley Sinclair suddenly.  “Ain’t you no more worried than that?”

The voice of the schoolteacher in reply was as smooth as running water.  “I think you’ll bring me out of the trouble safely enough, Mr. Sinclair.”

“Mr. Sinclair’ll see you damned before he lifts a hand for you!” Riley retorted savagely.

He strode to his horse and expended his wrath by viciously jerking at the cinches, until the mustang groaned.  Sheriff Kern came suddenly into clear view around the last turn and rode quickly up to them, a very short man, muscular, sweaty.  He always gave the impression that he had been working ceaselessly for a week, and certainly he found time to shave only once in ten days.  Dense bristle clouded the lower features of his face.  He was a taciturn man.  His greetings took the form of a single grunt.  He took possession of John Gaspar with a single glance that sent the latter nervously toward his saddle horse.

“I see you got this party all ready for me,” said the sheriff more amiably to Riley Sinclair, who was watching in disgust the clumsy method of Jig’s mounting.  “You’re Sinclair, I guess?”

“I’m Sinclair, sheriff.”

They shook hands.

“Nice bit of work you done for me, Sinclair, keeping the boys from stringing up Jig, yonder.  These here lynchings don’t set none too well on the reputation of a sheriff.  I guess we’re ready to start.  S’long Sally — Jerry.  Are you riding our way, Sinclair?”

“I thought I’d happen along.  Ain’t never seen Woodville yet.”

“Glad to have you.  But they ain’t much to see unless you look twice at the same thing.”

They started down the trail three abreast.

“Ride on ahead,” commanded Sinclair to Jig.  “We don’t want you riding in the same line with men.  Git on ahead!”

John Gaspar obeyed that brutal order with bowed head.  He rode listlessly, with loose rein, letting the pony pick its own way.  Once Sinclair looked back to Sally Bent, weeping in the arms of her brother.  Again his face grew black.

“And yet,” confided the sheriff softly, “I ain’t never heard no trouble about this Gaspar before.”

“He’s poison,” declared Sinclair bitterly, and he raised his voice that it would unmistakably carry to the shrinking figure before them.  “He’s such a yaller-hearted skunk, sheriff, that it makes me ashamed of bein’ a man!”

“They’s only one thing I misdoubt,” said the sheriff.  “How’d that sort of a gent ever get the nerve to murder a man like Quade?  Quade wasn’t no tenderfoot, and he could shoot a bit, besides.”

“Speaking personal, sheriff, I don’t think he done it, now I’ve had a chance to go over the evidence.”

“Maybe he didn’t, but most like he’ll hang for it.  The boys is dead set agin’ him.  First, he’s a dude; second, he’s a coward.  Sour Creek and Woodville wasn’t never cut out for that sort.  They ain’t wanted around.”

That speech made Riley Sinclair profoundly thoughtful.  He had known well enough before this that there were small chances of Jig escaping from the damning judgment of twelve of these cowpunchers.  The statement of the sheriff made the belief a fact.  The death sentence of Jig was pronounced the moment the doors of the jail at Woodville clanged upon him.

They struck the trail to Sour Creek and almost immediately swung off on a branch which led south and west, in the opposite direction from the creek.  It was a day of high-driving clouds, thin and fleecy, so that they merely filtered the sunlight and turned it into a haze without decreasing the heat perceptibly, and that heat grew until it became difficult to look down at the blazing sand.

Now the trail climbed among broken hills until they reached a summit.  From that point on, now and again the road elbowed into view of a wide plain, and in the center of the plain there was a diminutive dump of buildings.

“Woodville,” said the sheriff.  “Hey, you, Jig, hustle that hoss along!”

Obediently the drooping Gaspar spurred his horse.  The animal broke into a gallop that set Gaspar jolting in the seat, with wildly flopping elbows.

“Look at that,” said Sinclair.  “Would you ever think that men could be born as awkward as that?  Would you ever think that men would be born that didn’t have no use in the world?”

“He ain’t altogether useless,” decided the sheriff.  “Seems as how he’s done noble in the school.  Takes on with the little boys and girls most amazing, and he knows how to keep even the eighth graders interested.  But what can you expect of a gent that ain’t got no more pride than to be a schoolteacher, eh?”

Sinclair shook his head.

The trail drifted downward now less brokenly, and Woodville came into view.  It was a wretched town in a wretched landscape, far different from the wild hills and the rich plowed grounds around Sour Creek.  All that came to life in the brief spring, the long summer had long since burned away to drab yellows and browns.  A horrible place to die in, Sinclair thought.

“Speaking of hosses, that’s a wise-looking hoss you got, sheriff.”

“Rode him for five years,” said the sheriff.  “Raised him and busted him and trained him all by myself.  Ain’t nobody but me ever rode him.  He can go so soft-footed he wouldn’t bust eggs, sir, and he can turn loose and run like the wind.  They ain’t no better hoss than this that’s come under my eye, Sinclair.  Are you much on the points of a hoss?”

“I use hosses — I don’t love ’em,” said Sinclair gloomily.  “But I can read the points tolerable.”

The sheriff eyed Sinclair coldly.  “So you don’t love hosses, eh?” he said, returning distantly to the subject.  It was easy to see where his own heart lay by the way his roan picked up its head whenever its master spoke.

“Sheriff,” explained Sinclair, “I’m a single-shot gent.  I don’t aim to have no scatter fire in what I like.  They’s only one man that I ever called friend, they’s only one place that I ever called home — the mountains, yonder — and they’s only one hoss that I ever took to much.  I raised Molly up by hand, you might say.  She was ugly as sin, but they wasn’t nothing she couldn’t do — nothing!” He paused.  “Sheriff, I used to talk to that hoss!”

The sheriff was greatly moved.  “What became of her?” he asked softly.

“I took after a gent once.  He couldn’t hit me, but he put a slug through Molly.”

“What became of the gent?” asked the sheriff still more softly.

“He died just a little later.  Just how I ain’t prepared to state.”

“Good!” said the sheriff.  He actually smiled in the pleasure of newfound kinship.  “You and me would get on proper, Sinclair.”

“Most like.”

“This hoss of mine, now, has sense enough to take me home without me touching a rein.  Knows direction like a wolf.”

“Could you guide her with your knees?”


“And she’s plumb safe with you?”


“I know a gent once that said he’d trust himself tied hand and foot on his hoss.”

“That goes for me and my hoss, too, Sinclair.”

“Well, then, just shove up them hands, sheriff!”

The sheriff blinked, as the sun flashed on the revolver in the steady hand of Sinclair.  There was a significant little jerking up of the revolver.  Each time the muzzle stirred, the hands of the sheriff jumped higher and higher until his arms were stiffly stretched.  Gaspar had halted his horse and looked back in amazement.

“I hate to do it,” declared Sinclair.  “Right off I sort of took to you, sheriff.  But this has got to be done.”

“Sinclair, have you done much thinking before you figured this all out?”

“Enough!  If I knowed you one shade better, sheriff, I’d take your word that you’d ride on into Woodville, good and slow, and not start no pursuit.  But I don’t know you that well.  I got to tie you on the back of that steady old hoss of yours and turn you loose.  We need that much start.”

He dismounted, still keeping careful aim, took the rope coiled beside the sheriff’s own saddle horn and began a swift and sure process of tying.  He worked deftly, without undue fear or haste, and Gaspar came back to look on with scared eyes.

“You’re a fool, Sinclair,” murmured the sheriff.  “You’ll never get shut of me.  I’ll foller you till I drop dead.  I’ll never forget you.  Change your mind now, and we’ll say nothing has happened.  But if you keep on, you’re done for as sure as my name is Kern.  Take you by yourself, and you’d be a handful to catch.  But two is easier than one, and, when one of them two is a deadweight like Gaspar, they ain’t nothing to it.”

He finished his appeal completely trussed.

“I ain’t tied you on the hoss,” said Sinclair.  “Take note of that.  Also I’m leaving you your guns, sheriff.”

“I hope you’ll have a chance to see ’em come out of the holster later on, Sinclair.”

The cowpuncher took no notice of this bitterness.  Gaspar, who looked on, was astonished by a certain deferential politeness on the part of the big cowpuncher.

“Speaking personal, I hope I don’t never have no trouble with you, sheriff.  I like you, understand?”

“Have your little joke, Sinclair!”

“I mean it.  I know I’m usin’ you like a skunk.  But I got a special need, and I can’t take no chances.  Sheriff, I tell you out of my heart that I’m sorry!  Will you believe me?”

The sheriff smiled.  “The same as you’ll believe me when we change parts, Sinclair.”

The big man sighed.  “I s’pose it’s got to be that way,” he said.  “But if you come for me, Kern, come all primed for action.  It’ll be a hard trail.”

“That’s my specialty.”

“Well, sheriff, s’long — and good luck!”

The sheriff nodded.  “Thanks!”

Pressing his horse with his knees, Kern started down the trail at a slow canter.  Sinclair followed the retiring figure, nodding with admiration at the skill with which the sheriff kept his mount under control, merely by power of voice.  Presently the latter turned a corner of the trail and was out of sight.

“But — I knew — I knew!” exclaimed John Gaspar.  “Only, why did you let him go on into town?” The cold glance of Sinclair rested on his companion.  “What would you have done?”

“Tied him up and left him here.”

“I think you would — to die in the sun!” He swung up into his saddle.  “Now, Gaspar, we’ve started on what’s like to prove the last trail for both of us, understand?  By night we’ll both be outlawed.  They’ll have a price on us, and long before night, Kern will be after us.  For the first time in your soft-hearted life you’ve got to work, and you’ve got to fight.”

“I’ll do it, Mr. Sinclair!”

“Bah!  Save your talk.  Talk’s dirt cheap.”

“I only ask one thing.  Why have you done it?”

“Because, you fool, I killed Quade!”