Read CHAPTER 22 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

In the darkness beneath the north windows of the hotel, Sinclair consulted his watch, holding it close until he could make out the dim position of the hands against the white dial.  It was too early for Cartwright to be in bed, unless he were a very long sleeper.  So Sinclair waited.

A continual danger lay beside him.  The kitchen door constantly banged open and shut, as the Chinese cook trotted out and back, carrying scraps to the waste barrel, or bringing his new-washing tins to hang on a rack in the open air, a resource on which he was forced to fall back on account of his cramped quarters.

But the cook never left the bright shaft of light which fell through the doorway behind and above him, and consequently he could not see into the thick darkness where Sinclair crouched only a few yards away; and the cowpuncher remained moveless.  From time to time he looked up, and still the windows were black.

After what seemed an eternity, there was a flicker, as when the wick of a lamp is lighted, and then a steady glow as the chimney was put on again.  That glow brightened, decreased, became an unchanging light.  The wick had been trimmed, and Cartwright was in for the evening.

However, the cook had not ceased his pilgrimages.  At the very moment when Sinclair had straightened to attempt the climb up the side of the house, the cook came out and crouched on the upper step, humming a jangling tune and sucking audibly a long-stemmed pipe.  The queer-smelling smoke drifted across to Sinclair; for a moment he was on the verge of attempting a quick leap and a tying and gagging of the Oriental, but he desisted.

Instead, Sinclair flattened himself against the wall and waited.  Providence came to his assistance at that crisis.  Someone called from the interior of the house.  There was an odd-sounding exclamation from the cook, and then the latter jumped up and scurried inside, slamming the screen door behind him with a great racket.

Sinclair raised his head and surveyed the side of the wall for the last time.  The sill of the window of the first floor was no higher than his shoulders.  The eaves above that window projected well out, and they would afford an excellent hold by which he could swing himself up.  But having swung up, the great problem was to obtain sufficient purchase for his knee to keep from sliding off before he had a chance to steady himself.  Once on the ledge of those eaves, he could stand up and look through any one of the three windows into the room which, according to the boy, Cartwright occupied.

He lifted himself onto the sill of the first window, bumping his nose sharply against the pane of the glass.

Then began the more difficult task.  He straightened and fixed his fingers firmly on the ledge above him, waiting until his palm and the fingertips had sweated into a steady grip.  Then he stepped as far as possible to one side and sprang up with a great heave of the shoulders.

But the effort was too great.  He not only flung himself far enough up, but too far, and his descending knee, striving for a hold, slipped off as if from an oiled surface.  He came down with a jar, the full length of his arms, a fall that flung him down on his back on the ground.

With a stifled curse he leaped up again.  It seemed that the noise of that fall must have resounded for a great distance, but, as he stood there listening, no one drew near.  Someone came out of the front door of the hotel, laughing.

The cowpuncher tried again.  He managed the first stage of the ascent, as before, very easily, but, making the second effort he exceeded too much in caution and fell short.  However, the fall did not include a toppling all the way to the ground.  His feet landed softly on the sill, and, at the same time, voices turned the corner of the building beside him.  Sinclair flattened himself against the pane of the lower window and held his breath.  Two men were beneath him.  Their heads were level with his feet.  He could have kicked the hats off their heads, without the slightest trouble.

It was a mystery that they did not see him, he thought, until he recalled that all men, at night, naturally face outward from a wall.  It is an instinct.  They stood close together, talking rather low.  The one was fairly tall, and the other squat.  The shorter man lighted a cigarette.  The match light glinted on an oily, olive skin, and so much of the profile as he could see was faintly familiar.  He sent his memory lurching back into far places and old times, but he had no nerve for reminiscence.  He recalled himself to the danger of the moment and listened to them talking.

“What’s happened?” the taller man was saying.

“So far, nothing,” grunted the other.

“And how long do you feel we’d ought to keep it up?”

“I dunno.  I’ll tell you when I get tired.”

“Speaking personal, Fatty, I’m kind of tired of it right now.  I want to hit the hay.”

“Buck up, buck up, partner.  We’ll get him yet!”

Now it flashed into the mind of Sinclair that it must be a pair of crooked gamblers working on some fat purse in the hotel, come out here to arrange plans because they failed to extract the bank roll as quickly as they desired.  Otherwise, there could be no meaning to this talk of “getting” someone.

“But between you and me,” grumbled the big man, “it looked from the first like a bum game, Fatty.”

“That’s the trouble with you, Red.  You ain’t got any patience.  How does a cat catch a mouse?  By sitting down and waiting — maybe three hours.  And the hungrier she gets, the longer she’ll wait and the stiller she’ll sit.  A man could take a good lesson out’n that.”

“You always got a pile of fancy words,” protested the big man.

Sinclair saw Fatty put his hand on the shoulder of his companion.  Plainly he was the dominant force of the two, in spite of his lack of height.

“Red, as sure as you’re born, they’s something going to happen this here night.  My scars is itching, Red, and that means something.”

Again the mind of Sinclair flashed back to something familiar.  A man who prophesied by the itching of his scars.  But once more the danger of the moment made his mind a blank to all else.

“What scars?” asked Red.

“Scratches I got when I was a kid,” flashed the fat man.  “That’s all.”  “Oh,” chuckled Red, plainly unconvinced.  “Well, we’ll play the game a little longer.”

“That’s the talk, partner.  I tell you we got this trap baited, and it’s got to catch!”

Presently they drifted around the corner of the building and out of sight.  For a moment Sinclair wondered what that trap could be which the fat man had baited so carefully.  His mind reverted to his original picture of a card game.  Cheap tricksters, sharpers with the cards, he decided, and with that decision he banished them both from his mind.

There was no other sign of life around him.  All of Sour Creek lived in the main street, or went to bed at this hour of the early night.  The back of the hotel was safe from observance, except for the horse shed, and the back of the shed was turned to him.  He felt safe, and now he turned, settled his fingers into a new grip on the eaves, and made his third attempt.  It succeeded to a nicety, his right knee catching solidly on the ledge.

He got a fingertip hold on the boards and stood up.  Straightening himself slowly, he looked into the room through a corner of the window pane.

Cartwright sat with his back to the window, a lamp beside him on the table, writing.  He had thrown off his heavy outer shirt, and he wore only a cotton undershirt.  His heavy shoulders and big-muscled arms showed to great advantage, with the light and sharp shadows defining each ridge.  Now and then he lifted his head to think.  Then he bent to his writing again.

It occurred to Sinclair to fling the window up boldly, and when Cartwright turned, cover him with a gun.  But the chances, including his position on the ledge, were very much against him.  Cartwright would probably snatch at his own gun which lay before him in its holster on the table, and whirling he would try a snap shot.

The only other alternative was to raise the window — and that with Cartwright four paces away!

First Sinclair took stock of the interior of the room.  It was larger than most parlors he had seen.  There was a big double bed on each side of it.  Plainly it was intended to accommodate a whole party, and Sinclair smiled at the vanity of the man who had insisted on taking “the best you have.”  No wonder Sour Creek knew the room he had rented.

In the corner was a great fireplace capable of taking a six-foot log, at least.  He admired the massive andirons, palpably of home manufacture in Sour Creek’s blacksmith shop.  It proved the age of the building.  No one would waste money on such a fireplace in these days.  A little stove would do twice the work of that great, hungry chimney.  There were two great chests of drawers, also, each looking as if it were built up from the floor and made immovable, such was its weight.  The beds, also, were of an ancient and solid school of furniture making.

To be sure, everything was sadly run down.  On the floor the thin old carpet was worn completely through at the sides of the beds.  Both mirrors above the chest of drawers were sadly cracked, and the table at which Cartwright sat, leaned to the right under the weight of the arm he rested on it.

Having thus taken in the details of the battle ground, Sinclair made ready for the attack.  He made sure of his footing on the ledge, gave a last glance over his shoulder to see that no one was in sight, and then began to work at the window, moving it fractions of an inch at a time.