Read CHAPTER 19 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

For Jude Cartwright the world was gone mad, as he spurred down the hills away from Sinclair and the girl.  It was really only the second time in his life that he had been thwarted in an important matter.  To be sure he had been raised roughly among rough men, but among the roughest of them, the repute of his family and the awe of his father’s wide authority had served him as a shield in more ways than Jude himself could realize.  He had grown very much accustomed to having his way.

All things were made smooth for him; and when he reached the age when he began to think of marriage, and was tentatively courting half a dozen girls of the district, unhoped-for great fortune had fairly dropped into his path.

The close acquaintance with old Mervin in that hunting trip had been entirely accidental, and he had been astounded by the marriage contract which Mervin shortly after proposed between the two families.  Ordinarily even Jude Cartwright, with all his self-esteem, would never have aspired to a star so remote as Mervin’s daughter.  The miracle, however, happened.  He saw himself in the way to be the richest man on the range, the possessor of the most lovely wife.

That dream was first pricked by the inexplicable disappearance of the girl on their marriage day.  He had laid that disappearance to foul play.  That she could have left him through any personal aversion never entered his complacent young head.

He went out on the quest after the neighboring district had been combed for his wife, and he had spent the intervening months in a ceaseless search, which grew more and more disheartening.  It was only by chance that he remembered that Mervin had lived for some time in Sour Creek, and only with the faintest hope of finding a clue that he decided to visit that place.  In his heart he was convinced that the girl was dead, but if she were really hiding it was quite possible that she might have remembered the town where her father had made his first success with cattle.

Now the coincidence that had brought him face to face with her, stunned him.  He was still only gradually recovering from it.  It was totally incredible that she should have fled at all.  And it was entirely beyond the range of credence that modest Elizabeth Mervin should have donned the clothes of a man and should be wandering through the hills with a male companion.

But when his wonder died away, he felt little or no pity for his wife.  The pang that he felt was the torture of offended pride.  Indeed, the fact that he had lost his wife meant less to him than that his wife had seen him physically beaten by another man.  He writhed in his saddle at the memory.

Instantly his mind flashed back to the details of the scene.  He rehearsed it with himself in a different rôle, beating the cowpuncher to a helpless pulp of bruised muscle, snatching away his wife.  But even if he had been able to do that, what would the outcome be?  He could not let the world know the truth — that his wife had fled from him in horror on their marriage day, that she had wondered about in the clothes of a man, that she was the companion of another man.  And if he brought her back, certainly all these facts would come to light.  The close-cropped hair alone would be damning evidence.

He framed a wild tale of abduction by villains, of an injury, a sickness, a fever that forced a doctor to cut her hair short.  He had no sooner framed the story than he threw it away as useless.  With all his soul he began to wish for the only possible solution which would save the remnants of his ruined self-respect and keep him from the peril of discovery.  The girl must indubitably die!

By the time he came to this conclusion, he had struck out of the hills, and, as his horse hit the level going and picked up speed, the heart of Jude Cartwright became lighter.  He would get weapons and the finest horse money could buy in Sour Creek, trail the pair, take them by surprise, and kill them both.  Then back to the homeland and a new life!

Already he saw himself in it, his name surrounded with a glamour of pathetic romance, as the sad widower with a mystery darkening his past and future.  It was an agreeable gloom into which he fell.  Self-pity warmed him and loosened his fierceness.  He sighed with regret for his own misfortunes.

In this frame of mind he reached Sour Creek and its hotel.  While he wrote his name in the yellowed register he over-heard loud conversation in the farther end of the room.  Two men had been outlawed that day — John Gaspar, the schoolteacher who killed Quade, and Riley Sinclair, a stranger from the North.

Paying no further attention to the talk, he passed on into the general merchandise store which filled most of the lower story of the hotel.  There he found the hardware department, and prominent among the hardware were the gun racks.  He went over the Colts and with an expert hand took up the guns, while the gray-headed storekeeper advanced an eulogium upon each weapon.  His attention was distracted by the entrance of a tall, painfully thin man who seemed in great haste.

“What’s all this about Cold Feet, Whitey?” he asked.  “Cold Feet and Sinclair?”

“I dunno, Sandersen, except that word come in from Woodville that Sinclair stuck up the sheriff on his way in with Jig, and Sinclair got clean away.  What could have been in his head to grab Jig?”

“I dunno,” said Sandersen, apparently much perturbed.  “They outlawed ’em both, Whitey?”

There was an eagerness in this question so poorly concealed that Cartwright jerked up his head and regarded Sandersen with interest.

“Both,” replied Whitey.  “You seem sort of pleased, Sandersen?”

“I knowed that Sinclair would come to a bad end,” said Sandersen more soberly.

“Why, I thought they said you cottoned to him when the boys was figuring he might have had something to do with Quade?”

“Me?  Well, yes, for a minute.  But out at the necktie party, Whitey, I kept watching him.  Thinks a lot more’n he says, and gents like that is always dangerous.”

“Always,” replied Whitey.

“But it’s the last time Sinclair’ll show his face in Sour Creek — alive,” said Sandersen.

“If he does show his face alive, it’ll be a dead face pronto.  You can lay to that.”

Sandersen seemed to turn this fact over and over in his mind, with immense satisfaction.

“And yet,” pursued the storekeeper, “think of a full-grown man breaking the law to save such a skinny little shrimp of a gent as Jig?  Eh?  More like a pretty girl than a boy, Jig is.”

Cartwright exclaimed, and both of the others turned toward him.

“Here’s the gun for me,” he said huskily, “and that gun belt — filled — and this holster.  They’ll all do.”

“And a handy outfit,” said Whitey.  “That gun’ll be a friend in need!”

“What makes you think they’ll be a need?” asked Cartwright, with such unnecessary violence that the others both stared.  He went on more smoothly:  “What was you saying about a girl-faced gent?”

“The schoolteacher — he plugged a feller named Quade.  Sinclair got him clean away from Sheriff Kern.”

“And what sort of a looking gent is Sinclair?  Long, brown, and pretty husky-looking, with a mean eye?”

“You’ve named him!  Where’d you meet up with him?”

“Over in the hills yonder, just where the north trail comes over the rise.  They was sitting down under a tree resting their hosses when I come along.  I got into an argument with this Sinclair — Long Riley, he called himself.”

“Riley’s his first name.”

“We passed some words.  Pretty soon I give him the lie!  He made a reach for his gun.  I told him I wasn’t armed and dared him to try his fists.  He takes off his belt, and we went at it.  A strong man, but he don’t know nothing about hand fighting.  I had him about ready to give up and begging me to quit when this Jig, this girl-faced man you talk about — he pulls a gun and slugs me in the back of the head with it.”

Removing his sombrero he showed on the back of his head the great welt which had been made when he struck the ground with the weight of Sinclair on top of him.  It was examined with intense interest by the other two.

“Dirty work!” said Sandersen sympathetically.

The storekeeper said nothing at all, but began to fold up a bolt of cloth which lay half unrolled on the counter.

“It knocked me cold,” continued Cartwright, “and when I come to, they wasn’t no sign nor trace of ’em.”

Buckling on the belt, he shoved the revolver viciously home in the holster.

“I’ll land that pair before the posse gets to ’em, and when I land ’em I won’t do no arguing with fists!”

“Say, I call that nerve,” put in the storekeeper, with patent admiration in his eyes, while he smoothed a fold of the cloth.  “Running agin’ one gent like Sinclair is bad enough — let alone tackling two at once.  But you’d ought to take out a big insurance on your life, friend, before you take that trail.  It’s liable to be all out-trail and no coming back.”

A great deal of enthusiasm faded from Cartwright’s face.

“How come?” he asked briefly.

“Nothing much.  But they say this Sinclair is quite a gunfighter, my friend.  Up in his home town they scare the babies by talking about Sinclair.”

“H’m,” murmured Cartwright.  “He can’t win always, and maybe I’ll be the lucky man.”

But he went out of the store with his head thoughtfully inclined.

“Think of meeting up with them two all alone and not knowing what they was!” sighed Sandersen.  “He’s lucky to be alive, I’ll tell a man.”

Whitey grinned.

“Plenty of nerve in a gent like that,” went on Sandersen, his pale blue eyes becoming dreamy.  “Get your gat out, will you, Bill?”

Bill Sandersen obliged.

“Look at the butt.  D’you see any point on it?”


“Did you look at that welt on the stranger’s head?”


“Did you see a little cut in the middle of the welt?”

“Come to think of it, I sure did.”

“Well, Sandersen, how d’you make out that a gun butt would make a cut like that?”

“What are you driving at, Whitey?”

“I’m just discounting the stranger,” said Whitey.  “I dunno what other talents he’s got, but he’s sure a fine nacheral liar.”