Read CHAPTER 16 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

It was a weary ride that brought them to the end of that day and to a camping place.  It seemed to Jig that the world was made up of nothing but the ups and downs of that mountain trail.  Now, as the sun went down, they came out on a flat shoulder of the mountain.  Far below them lay Sour Creek, long lost in the shadow of premature night which filled the valley.

“Here we are, fixed up as comfortable as can be,” said Sinclair cheerily.  “There’s water, and there’s wood aplenty.  What could a gent ask for more?  And here’s my country!”

For a moment his expression softened as he looked over the black peaks stepping away to the north.  Now he pointed out a grove of trees, and on the other side of the little plateau was heard the murmur of a feeble spring.

Riley swung down easily from the saddle, but when Jig dismounted his knees buckled with weariness, and he slipped down on a rock.  He was unheeded for a moment by the cowpuncher, who was removing from his saddle the quarters of a deer which he had shot at the foot of the mountain.  When this task was ended, a stern voice brought Jig to his feet.

“What’s all this?  How come?  Going to let that hoss stand there all night with his saddle on?  Hurry up!”

“All right,” replied the schoolteacher, but his voice quaked with weariness, and the cinch knot, drawn taut by the powerful hand of Jerry Bent, refused to loosen.  He struggled with it until his fingers ached, and his panicky breath came in gasps of nervous excitement.

Presently he was aware of the tall, dark form of Sinclair behind him, his saddle slung across his arm.

“By guns,” muttered Sinclair, “it ain’t possible!  Not enough muscle to untie a knot?  It’s a good thing that your father can’t see the sort of a son that he turned out.  Lemme at that!”

Under his strong fingers the knot gave by magic.

“Now yank that saddle off and put it yonder with mine.”

Jig pulled back the saddle, but when the full weight jerked down on him he staggered, and he began to drag the heavy load.

“Hey,” cut in the voice of the tyrant, “want to spoil that saddle, kid?  Lift it, can’t you?”

Gaspar obeyed with a start and, having placed it in the required position, turned and waited guiltily.

“Time you was learning something about camping out,” declared the cowpuncher, “and I’ll teach you.  Take this ax and gimme some wood, pronto!”

He handed over a short ax, heavy-headed and small of haft.

“That bush yonder!  That’s dead, or dead enough for us.”

Plainly Jig was in awe of that ax.  He carried it well out from his side, as if he feared the least touch against his leg might mean a cut.  Of all this, Riley Sinclair was aware with a gradually darkening expression.  He had been partly won to Jig that day, but his better opinion of the schoolteacher was being fast undermined.

With a gloomy eye he watched John Gaspar drop on his knees at the base of the designated shrub and raise the ax slowly — in both hands!  Not only that, but the head remained poised, hung over the schoolteacher’s shoulder.  When the blow fell, instead of striking solidly on the trunk of the bush, it crashed futilely through a branch.  Riley Sinclair drew closer to watch.  It was excusable, perhaps, for a man to be unable to ride or to shoot or to face other men.  But it was inconceivable that any living creature should be so clumsy with a common ax.

To his consummate disgust the work of Jig became worse and worse.  No two blows fell on the same spot.  The trunk of the little tree became bruised, but even when the edge of the ax did not strike on a branch, at most it merely sliced into the outer surface of the wood and left the heart untouched.  It was a process of gnawing, not of chopping.  To crown the terrible exhibition, Jig now rested from his labors and examined the palms of his hands, which had become a bright red.

“Gimme the ax,” said Sinclair shortly.  He dared not trust himself to more speech and, snatching it from the hands of Cold Feet, buried the blade into the very heart of the trunk.  Another blow, driven home with equal power and precision on the opposite side, made the tree shudder to its top, and the third blow sent it swishing to the earth.

This brought a short cry of admiration and wonder from the schoolteacher, for which Sinclair rewarded him with one glance of contempt.  With sweeping strokes he cleared away the half-dead branches.  Presently the trunk was naked.  On it Riley now concentrated his attack, making the short ax whistle over his shoulders.  The trunk of the shrub was divided into handy portions as if by magic.

Still John Gaspar stood by, gaping, apparently finding nothing to do.  And this with a camp barely started!

It was easier to do oneself, however, than to give directions to such stupidity.  Sinclair swept up an armful of wood and strode off to the spot he had selected for the campfire, near the place where the spring water ran into a small pool.  A couple of big rocks thrown in place furnished a windbreak.  Between them he heaped dead twigs, and in a moment the flame was leaping.

As soon as the fire was lighted they became aware that the night was well nigh upon them.  Hitherto the day had seemed some distance from its final end, for there was still color in the sky, and the tops of the western mountains were still bright.  But with the presence of fire brightness, the rest of the world became dim.  The western peaks were ghostly; the sky faded to the ashes of its former splendor; and Jig found himself looking down upon thick night in the lower valleys.  He saw the eyes of the horses glistening, as they raised their heads to watch.  The gaunt form of Sinclair seemed enormous.  Stooping about the fire, enormous shadows drifted above and behind him.  Sometimes the light flushed over his lean face and glinted in his eyes.  Again his head was lost in shadow, and perhaps only the active, reaching hands were illuminated brightly.

He prepared the deer meat with incomprehensible swiftness, at the same time arranging the fire so that it rapidly burned down to a firm, strong, level bed of coals, and by the time the bed of coals were ready, the meat was prepared in thick steaks to broil over it.

In a little time the rich brown of the cooking venison streaked across to Jig.  He had kept at a distance up to this time, realizing that he was in disgrace.  Now he drifted near.  He was rewarded by an amiable grin from Riley Sinclair, whose ugly humor seemed to have vanished at the odor of the broiling meat.

“Watch this meat cook, kid, will you?  There’s something you can do that don’t take no muscle and don’t take no knowledge.  All you got to do is to keep listening with your nose, and if you smell it burning, yank her off.  Understand?  And don’t let the fire blaze.  She’s apt to flare up at the corners, you see?  And these here twigs is apt to burn through — these ones that keep the meat off’n the coals.  Watch them, too.  And that’s all you got to do.  Can you manage all them things at once?”

Jig nodded gravely, as though he failed to see the contempt.

“I seen a fine patch of grass down the hill a bit.  I’m going to take the hosses down there and hobble ’em out.”  Whistling, Sinclair strode off down the hill, leading the horses after him.

The schoolteacher watched him go, and when the forms had vanished, and only the echo of the whistling blew back, he looked up.  The last life was gone from the sunset.  The last time he glanced up, there had been only a few dim stars; now they had come down in multitudes, great yellow planets and whole rifts of steel-blue stars.

He took from his pocket the old envelope which Sinclair had given him, examined the scribbled confession, chuckling at the crude labor with which the writing had been drawn out, and then deliberately stuffed the paper into a corner of the fire.  It flamed up, singeing the cooking meat, but John Gaspar paid no heed.  He was staring off down the hill to make sure that Sinclair should not return in time to see that little act of destruction.  An act of self-destruction, too, it well might turn out to be.

As for Sinclair, having found his pastureland, where the grass grew thick and tall, he was in no hurry to return to his clumsy companion.  He listened for a time to the sound of the horses, ripping away the grass close to the ground, and to the grating as they chewed.  Then he turned his attention to the mountains.  His spirit was easier in this place.  He breathed more easily.  There was a sense of freedom at once and companionship.  He lingered so long, indeed, that he suddenly became aware that time had slipped away from him, and that the venison must be long since done.  At that he hurried back up the slope.

He was hungry, ravenously hungry, but the first thing that greeted him was the scent of burning meat.  It stopped him short, and his hands gripped involuntarily.  In that first burst of passion he wanted literally to wring the neck of the schoolteacher.  He strode closer.  It was as he thought.  The twigs had burned away from beneath the steak and allowed it to drop into the cinders, and beside the dying fire, barely illuminated by it, sat Jig, sound asleep, with his head resting on his knees.

For a moment Sinclair had to fight with himself for control.  All his murderous evil temper had flared up into his brain and set his teeth gritting.  At length he could trust himself enough to reach down and set his heavy grip on the shoulder of the sleeper.

Even in sleep Jig must have been pursued by a burdened consciousness of guilt.  Now he jerked up his head and stammered up to the shadowy face of Sinclair.

“I — I don’t know — all at once it happened.  You see the fire — ”

But the telltale odor of the charring meat struck his nostrils, and his speech died away.  He was panting with fear of consequences.  Now a new turn came to the fear of Cold Feet.  It seemed that Riley Sinclair’s hand had frozen at the touch of the soft flesh of Jig’s shoulder.  He remained for a long moment without stirring.  When his hand moved it was to take Jig under the chin with marvelous firmness and gentleness at once and lift the face of the schoolteacher.  He seemed to find much to read there, much to study and know.  Whatever it was, it set Jig trembling until suddenly he shrank away, cowering against the rock behind.

“You don’t think — ”

But the voice of Sinclair broke in with a note in it that Jig had never heard before.

“Guns and glory — a woman!”

It came over him with a rush, that revelation which explained so many things — everything in fact; all that strange cowardice, and all that stranger grace; that unmanly shrinking, that more than manly contempt for death.  Now the firelight was too feeble to show more than one thing — the haunted eyes of the girl, as she cowered away from him.

He saw her hand drop from her breast to her holster and close around the butt of her revolver.

Sinclair grew cold and sick.  After all, what reason had she to trust him?  He drew back and began to walk up and down with long, slow strides.  The girl followed him and saw his gaunt figure brush across the stars; she saw the wind furl and unfurl the wide brim of his hat, and she heard the faint stir and clink of his spurs at every step.

There was a tumult in the brain of the cowpuncher.  The stars and the sky and the mountains and wind went out.  They were nothing in the electric presence of this new Jig.  His mind flashed back to one picture — Cold Feet with her hands tied behind her back, praying under the cottonwood.

Shame turned the cowpuncher hot and then cold.  He allowed his mind to drift back over his thousand insults, his brutal language, his cursing, his mockery, his open contempt.  There was a tingle in his ears, and a chill running up and down his spine.

After all that brutality, what mysterious sense had told her to trust to him rather than to Sour Creek and its men?

Other mysteries flocked into his mind.  Why had she come to the very verge of death, with the rope around her neck rather than reveal her identity, knowing, as she must know, that in the mountain desert men feel some touch of holiness in every woman?

He remembered Cartwright, tall, handsome, and narrow of eye, and the fear of the girl.  Suddenly he wished with all his soul that he had fought with guns that day, and not with fists.