Read CHAPTER 14 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

All that Gaspar dreaded in Riley Sinclair had come true.  The schoolteacher drew his horse as far away as the trail allowed and rode on in silence.  Finally there was a stumble, and it seemed as if the words were jarred out from his lips, hitherto closely compressed:  “You killed Quade!”

A scowl was his answer.

But he persisted in the inquiry with a sort of trembling curiosity, though he could see the angry emotions rise in Sinclair.  The emotion of a murderer, perhaps?


“With a gun, fool.  How d’you think?”

Even that did not halt John Gaspar.

“Was it a fair fight?”

“Maybe — maybe not.  It won’t bring him back to life!”

Riley laughed with savage satisfaction.  Gaspar watched him as a bird might watch a snake.  He had heard tales of men who could find satisfaction in a murder, but he had never believed that a human being could actually gloat over his own savagery.  He stared at Riley as if he were looking at a wild beast that must be placated.

Thereafter the talk was short.  Now and again Sinclair gave some curt direction, but they put mile after mile behind them without a single phrase interchanged.  Gaspar began to slump in the saddle.  It brought a fierce rebuke from Sinclair.

“Straighten up.  Put some of your weight in them stirrups.  D’you think any hoss can buck up when it’s carrying a pile of lead?  Come alive!”

“It’s the heat.  It takes my strength,” protested Gaspar.

“Curse you and your strength!  I wouldn’t trade all of you for one ear of the hoss you’re riding.  Do what I tell you!”

Without protest, without a flush of shame at this brutal abuse, John Gaspar attempted to obey.  Then, as they topped a rise and reached a crest of a range of hills, Gaspar cried out in surprise.  Sour Creek lay in the hollow beneath them.

“But you’re running straight into the face of danger!”

“Don’t tell me what I’m doing.  I know maybe, all by myself!”

He checked his horse and sat his saddle, eying Gaspar with such disgust, such concentrated scorn and contempt, that the schoolteacher winced.

“I’ve brought you in sight of the town so’s you can go home.”

“And be hanged?”

“You won’t be hanged.  I’ll send a confession along with you.  I’ve busted the law once.  They’re after me.  They might as well have some more reasons for hitting my trail.”

“But is it fair to you?” asked Gaspar, intertwining his nervous fingers.

Sinclair heard the words and eyed the gesture with unutterable disgust.  At last he could speak.

“Fair?” he asked in scorn.  “Since when have you been interested in playing fair?  Takes a man with some nerve to play fair.  You’ve spoiled my game, Gaspar.  You’ve blocked me every way from the start, Cold Feet.  I killed Quade, and they’s another in Sour Creek that needs killing.  That’s something you can do.  Go down and tell the sheriff when he happens along and show him my confession.  Go down and tell him that I ain’t running away — that I’m staying close, and that I’m going to nab my second man right under his nose.  That’ll give him something to think about.”

He favored the schoolteacher with another black look and then swung out of the saddle, throwing his reins.  He sat down with his back to a stunted tree.  Gaspar dismounted likewise and hovered near, after the fashion of a man who is greatly worried.  He watched while Sinclair deliberately took out an old stained envelope and the stub of a pencil and started to write.  His brows knitted in pain with the effort.  Suddenly Gaspar cried:  “Don’t do it, Mr. Sinclair!”

A slight lifting of Sinclair’s heavy brows showed that he had heard, but he did not raise his head.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t try to kill that second man.  Don’t do it!”

Gaspar was rewarded with a sneer.

“Why not?”

The schoolteacher was desperately eager.  His glance roved from the set face of the cowpuncher and through the scragged branches of the tree.

“You’ll be damned for it — in your own mind.  At heart you’re a good man; I swear you are.  And now you throw yourself away.  Won’t you try to open your mind and see this another way?”

“Not an inch.  Kid, I gave my word for this to a dead man.  I told you about a friend of mine?”

“I’ll never forget.”

“I gave my word to him, though he never heard it.  If I have to wait fifty years I’ll live long enough to kill the gent that’s in Sour Creek now.  The other day I had him under my gun.  Think of it!  I let him go!”

“And you’ll let him go again.  Sinclair, murder isn’t in your nature.  You’re better than you think.”

“Close up,” growled the cowpuncher.  “It ain’t no Saturday night party for me to write.  Keep still till I finish.”

He resumed his labor of writing, drawing out each letter carefully.  He had reached his signature when a low call from John Gaspar alarmed him.  He looked up to find the little man pointing and staring up the trail.  A horseman had just dropped over the crest and was winding leisurely down toward the plain below.

“We can get behind that knoll, perhaps, before he sees us,” suggested Jig in a whisper.  His suggestion met with no favor.

“You hear me talk, son,” said Sinclair dryly.  “That gent ain’t carrying no guns, which means that he ain’t on our trail, we being figured particularly desperate.”  He pointed this remark with a cold survey of the “desperate” Jig.

“But the best way to make danger follow you, Jig, is to run away from it.  We stay put!”

He emphasized the remark by stretching luxuriously.  Gaspar, however, did not seem to hear the last words.  Something about the strange horseman had apparently riveted his interest.  His last gesture was arrested halfway, and his color changed perceptibly.

“You stay, then, Mr. Sinclair,” he said hurriedly.  “I’m going to slip down the hill and — ”

“You stay where you are!” cut in Sinclair.

“But I have a reason.”

“Your reasons ain’t no good.  You stay put.  You hear?”

It seemed that a torrent of explanation was about to pour from the lips of Jig, but he restrained himself, white of face, and sank down in the shade of the tree.  There he stretched himself out hastily, with his hands cupped behind his head and his hat tilted so far down over his face that his entire head was hidden.

Sinclair followed these proceedings with a lackluster eye.

“When you do move, Jig,” he said, “you ain’t so slow about it.  That’s pretty good faking, take it all in all.  But why don’t you want this strange gent to see your face?”

A slight shudder was the only reply; then Jig lay deadly still.  In the meantime, before Sinclair could pursue his questions, the horseman was almost upon them.  The cowpuncher regarded him with distinct approval.  He was a man of the country, and he showed it.  As his pony slouched down the slope, picking its way dexterously among the rocks, the rider met each jolt on the way with an easy swing of his shoulders, riding “straight up,” just enough of his weight falling into his stirrups to break the jar on the back of the mustang.

The stranger drew up on the trail and swung the head of his horse in toward the tree, raising his hand in cavalier greeting.  He was a sunbrowned fellow, as tall as Sinclair and more heavily built; as for his age, he seemed in that joyous prime of physical life, twenty-five.  Sinclair nodded amiably.

“Might that be Sour Creek yonder?” asked the brown man.

“It might be.  I reckon it is.  Get down and rest your hoss.”

“Thanks.  Maybe I will.”

He dropped to the ground and eased and stiffened his knees to get out the cramp of long riding.  Off the horse he seemed even bigger and more capable than before, and now that he had come sufficiently close, so that the shadow from his sombrero’s brim did not partially mask the upper part of his face, it seemed to Sinclair that about the eyes he was not nearly so prepossessing as around the clean-cut fighter’s mouth and chin.  The eyes were just a trifle too small, a trifle too close together.  Yet on the whole he was a handsome fellow, as he pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead dry with a gay silk handkerchief.

Sinclair noted, furthermore, that the other had a proper cowpuncher’s pride in his dress.  His bench-made boots molded his long and slender feet to a nicety and fitted like gloves around the high instep.  The polished spurs, with their spoon-handle curve, gleamed and flashed, as he stepped with a faint jingling.  The braid about his sombrero was a thing of price.  These details Sinclair noted.  The rest did not matter.

“The kid’s asleep?” asked the stranger, casting a careless glance at the slim form of Jig.

“I reckon so.”

“He done it almighty sudden.  Thought I seen him up and walking around when I come over the hill.”

“You got good eyes,” said Sinclair, but he was instantly put on the defensive.  He was heartily tired of Cold Feet Gaspar, his peculiarities, his whims, his weaknesses.  But Cold Feet was his riding companion, and this was a stranger.  He was thrown suddenly in the position of a defender of the helpless.  “That’s the way with these kids,” he confided carelessly to the stranger.  “They get out and ride fast for a couple of hours.  Full of ambition, they are.  But just when a growed man gets warmed up to his work; they’re through.  The kid’s tired out.”

“Come far?” asked the stranger.

“Tolerable long ways.”

Sinclair disliked questions, and for each interrogation his opinion of the newcomer descended lower and lower.  His own father had raised him on a stern pattern.  “What you mean by questions, Riley?  What you can’t figure out with your own eyes and ears and good common hoss sense, most likely the other gent don’t want you to know.”  Thereafter he had schooled himself in this particular point.  He could suppress all curiosity and go six months without knowing more than the nickname of a boon companion.

“You come from Sour Creek, maybe?” went on the other.

“Sort of,” replied Sinclair dryly.

His companion proceeded to dispense information on his own part so as to break the ice.

“I’m Jude Cartwright.”

He paused significantly, but Sinclair’s face was a blank.

“Glad to know you, Mr. Cartwright.  Mostly they call me Long Riley.”

“How are you, Riley?”

They shook hands heartily.  Cartwright took a place on the ground, cross-legged and not far from Sinclair.

“I guess you don’t know me?” he asked pointedly.

“I guess not.”

“I’m of the Jesse Cartwright family.”

Sinclair smiled blankly.

“Lucky Cartwright was my dad’s name.”

“That so?”

“I guess you ain’t ever been up Montana way,” said the stranger in disgust which he hardly veiled.

“Not much,” said Sinclair blandly.

“I wished that I was back up there.  This is a hole of a country down here.”

“Hossflesh and time will take you back, I reckon.”

“I reckon they will, when my job’s done.”

He turned a disparaging eye upon Sour Creek and its vicinity.

“Now, who would want to live in a town like that, can you tell me?”

It occurred very strongly to Riley Sinclair that Cartwright had not yet fully ascertained whether or not his companion came from that very town.  And, although the day before, he had decided that Sour Creek was most undesirable and all that pertained to it, this unasked confirmation of his own opinion grated on his nerves.

“Well, they seems to be a few that gets along tolerable well in that town, partner.”

“They’s ten fools for one wise man,” declared Cartwright sententiously.

Sinclair veiled his eyes with a downward glance.  He dared not let the other see the cold gleam which he knew was coming into them.  “I guess them’s true words.”

“Tolerable true,” admitted Cartwright.  “But I’ve rode a long ways, and this ain’t much to find at the end of the trail.”

“Maybe it’ll pan out pretty well after all.”

“If Sour Creek holds the person I’m after, I’ll call it a good-paying game.”

“I hope you find your friend,” remarked Riley, with his deceptive softness of tone.

“Friend?  Hell!  And that’s where this friend will wish me when I heave in sight.  You can lay to that, and long odds!”

Sinclair waited, but the other changed his tack at once.

“If you ain’t from Sour Creek, I guess you can’t tell me what I want to know.”

“Maybe not.”

The brown man looked about him for diversion.  Presently his eyes rested on Cold Feet, who had not stirred during all this interval.



“Kid brother?”


Cartwright frowned.  “Not much of nothing, I figure,” he said with marked insolence.

“Maybe not,” replied Sinclair, and again he glanced down.

“He’s slept long enough, I reckon,” declared the brown man.  “Let’s have a look at him.  Hey, kid!”

Cold Feet quivered, but seemed lost in a profound sleep.  Cartwright reached for a small stone and juggled it in the palm of his hand.

“This’ll surprise him,” he chuckled.

“Better not,” murmured Sinclair.

“Why not?”

“Might land on his face and hurt him.”

“It won’t hurt him bad.  Besides, kids ought to learn not to sleep in the daytime.  Ain’t a good idea any way you look at it.  Puts fog in the head.”

He poised the stone.

“You might hit his eye, you see,” said Sinclair.

“Leave that to me!”

But, as his arm twisted back for the throw, the hand of Sinclair flashed out and lean fingers crushed the wrist of Cartwright.  Yet Sinclair’s voice was still soft.

“Better not,” he said.

They sat confronting each other for a moment.  The stone dropped from the numbed fingers of Cartwright, and Sinclair released his wrist.  Their characters were more easily read in the crisis.  Cartwright’s face flushed, and a purple vein ran down his forehead between the eyes.  Sinclair turned pale.  He seemed, indeed, almost afraid, and apparently Cartwright took his cue from the pallor.

“I see,” he said sneeringly.  “You got your guns on.  Is that it?”

Sinclair slipped off the cartridge belt.

“Do I look better to you now?”

“A pile better,” said Cartwright.

They rose, still confronting each other.  It was strange how swiftly they had plunged into strife.

“I guess you’ll be rolling along, Cartwright.”

“Nope.  I guess I like it tolerable well under this here tree.”

“Except that I come here first, partner.”

“And maybe you’ll be the first to leave.”

“I’d have to be persuaded a pile.”

“How’s this to start you along?”

He flicked the back of his hand across the lips of Sinclair, and then sprang back as far as his long legs would carry him.  So doing, the first leap of Sinclair missed him, and when the cowpuncher turned he was met with a stunning blow on the side of the head.

At once the blind anger faded from the eyes of Riley.  By the weight of that first blow he knew that he had encountered a worthy foeman, and by the position of Cartwright he could tell that he had met a confident one.  The big fellow was perfectly poised, with his weight well back on his right foot, his left foot feeling his way over the rough ground as he advanced, always collected for a heavy blow, or for a leap in any direction.  He carried his guard high, with apparent contempt for an attack on his body, after the manner of a practiced boxer.

As for Riley Sinclair, boxing was Greek to him.  His battles had been those of bullets and sharp steel, or sudden, brutal fracas, where the rule was to strike with the first weapon that came to hand.  This single encounter, hand to hand, was more or less of a novelty to him, but instead of abashing or cowing him, it merely brought to the surface all his coldness of mind, all of his cunning.

He circled Cartwright, his long arms dangling low, his step soft and quick as the stride of a great cat, and always there was thought in his face.  One gained an impression that if ever he closed with his enemy the battle would end.

Apparently even Cartwright gained that impression.  His own brute confidence of skill and power was suddenly tinged with doubt.  Instead of waiting he led suddenly with his left, a blow that tilted the head of Sinclair back, and then sprang in with a crushing right.  It was poor tactics, for half of a boxer’s nice skill is lost in a plunging attack.  The second blow shot humming past Sinclair as the latter dodged; and, before the brown man could recover his poise, the cowpuncher had dived in under the guarding arms.

A shrill cry rose from Cold Feet, a cry so sharp and shrill that it sent a chill down the back of Sinclair.  For a moment he whirled with the weight of his struggling, cursing enemy, and then his right hand shot up over the shoulder of Cartwright and clutched his chin.  With that leverage one convulsive jerk threw Cartwright heavily back; he rolled on his side, with Sinclair following like a wildcat.

But Cartwright as he fell had closed his fingers on a jagged little stone.  Sinclair saw the blow coming, swerved from it, and straightway went mad.  The brown man became a helpless bulk; the knee of Sinclair was planted on his shoulders, the talon fingers of Sinclair were buried in his throat.

Then — he saw it only dimly through his red anger and hardly felt it at all — Jig’s hands were tearing at his wrists.  He looked up in dull surprise into the face of John Gaspar.

“For heaven’s sake,” Jig was pleading, “stop!”

But what checked Sinclair was not the schoolteacher.  Cartwright had been fighting with the fury of one who sees death only inches away.  Suddenly he grew limp.

“You!” he cried.  “You!”

To the astonishment of Sinclair the gaze of the beaten man rested directly upon the face of Jig.

“Yes,” Gaspar admitted faintly, “it is I!”

Sinclair released his grip and stood back, while Cartwright, stumbling to his feet, stood wavering, breathing harshly and fingering his injured throat.

“I knew I’d find you,” he said, “but I never dreamed I’d find you like this!”

“I know what you think,” said Cold Feet, utterly colorless, “but you think wrong, Jude.  You think entirely wrong!”

“You lie like a devil!”

“On my honor.”

“Honor?  You ain’t got none!  Honor!”

He flung himself into his saddle.  “Now that I’ve located you, the next time I come it’ll be with a gun.”

He turned a convulsed face toward Sinclair.

“And that goes for you.”

“Partner,” said Riley Sinclair, “that’s the best thing I’ve heard you say.  Until then, so long!”

The other wrenched his horse about and went down the trail at a reckless gallop, plunging out of view around the first shoulder of a hill.