Read CHAPTER 23 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

When the window was half raised — the work of a full ten minutes — Sinclair drew his revolver and rested the barrel on the sill.  He continued to lift the sash, but now he used his left hand alone, and thereby the noises became louder and more frequent.  Cartwright occasionally raised his head, but probably he was becoming accustomed to the sounds.

Now the window was raised to its full height, and Sinclair prepared for the command which would jerk Cartwright’s hands above his head and make him turn slowly to look into the mouth of the gun.  Weight which he could have handled easily with a lurch, became tenfold heavier with the slowness of the lift; eventually both shoulders were in the room, and he was kneeling on the sill.

Cartwright raised his hands slowly, luxuriously, and stretched.  It was a movement so opportune that Sinclair almost laughed aloud.  He twisted his legs over the sill and dropped lightly on the floor.

“No noise!” he called softly.

The arms of Cartwright became frozen in their position above his head.  He turned slowly, with little jerky movements, as though he had to fight to make himself look.  And then he saw Sinclair.

“Keep ’em up!” commanded the cowpuncher, “and get out of that chair, real soft and slow.  That’s it!”

Without a word Cartwright obeyed.  There was no need of speech, indeed, for a score of expressions flashed into his face.

“Go over and lock the door.”

He obeyed, keeping his arms above his head, all the way across the room, while Sinclair jerked the new Colt out of its holster and tossed it on the farthest bed.  In the meantime Cartwright lingered at the door for a moment with his hand on the key.  No doubt he fought, for the split part of a second, with a wild temptation to jerk that door open and leap into the safety of the hall.  Sinclair read that thought in the tremor of the big man’s body.  But presently discretion prevailed.  Cartwright turned the key and faced about.  He was a deadly gray, and his lips were working.

“Now,” he began.

“Wait till I start talking,” urged Sinclair.  “Come over here and sit down.  You’re too close to the door to suit me, just now.  This is a pile better.”

Cartwright obeyed quietly.  Sitting down, he locked his hands nervously about one knee and looked up with his eyes to Sinclair.

“I come in for a quiet talk,” said Sinclair, dropping his gun into the holster.

That movement drew a sudden brightening of the eyes of Cartwright, who now straightened in his chair, as if he had regained hope.

“Don’t make no mistake,” said Sinclair, following the meaning of that change accurately.  “I’m pretty handy with this old gun, partner.  And on you, just now, they ain’t any reason why I should take my time or any chances, when it comes to shooting.”

Unconsciously Cartwright moistened his white lips, and his eyes grew big again.

“Except that the minute you shoot, you’re a dead one, Sinclair.”

“Me?  Oh, no.  When a gun’s heard they’ll run to the room where the shot’s been fired.  And when they get the lock open, I’ll be gone the way I come from.”  Sinclair smiled genially on his enemy.  “Don’t start raising any crop of delusions, friend.  I mean business — a lot.”

“Then talk business.  I’ll listen.”

“Oh, thanks!  I come here about your wife.”

He watched Cartwright wince.  In his heart he pitied the man.  All the story of Cartwright’s spoiled boyhood and viciously selfish youth were written in his face for the reading of such a man as Sinclair.  The rancher’s son had begun well enough.  Lack of discipline had undone him; but whether his faults were fixed or changeable, Sinclair could not tell.  It was largely to learn this that he took the chances for the interview.

“Go on,” said Cartwright.

“In the first place, d’you know why she left you?”

An anguish came across Cartwright’s face.  It taught Sinclair at least one thing — that the man loved her.

“You’re the reason — maybe.”

“Me?  I never seen her till two days ago.  That’s a tolerable ugly thing to say, Cartwright!”

“Well, I got tolerable ugly reasons for saying it,” answered the other.

The cowpuncher sighed.  “I follow the way you drift.  But you’re wrong, partner.  Fact is, I didn’t know Cold Feet was a girl till this evening.”

Cartwright sneered, and Sinclair stiffened in his chair.

“Son,” he said gravely, “the worst enemies I got will all tell you that Riley Sinclair don’t handle his own word careless.  And I give you my solemn word of honor that I didn’t know she was a girl till this evening, and that, right away after I found it out, I come down here to straighten things out with you if I could.  Will you believe it?”

It was a strange study to watch the working in the face of Cartwright — of hope, passion, doubt, hatred.  He leaned closer to Sinclair, his big hands clutched together.

“Sinclair, I wish I could believe it!”

“Look me in the eye, man!  I can stand it.”

“By the Lord, it’s true!  But, Sinclair, have you come down to find out if I’d take her back?”

“Would you?”

The other grew instantly crafty.  “She’s done me a pile of wrong, Sinclair.”

“She has,” said the cowpuncher.  He went on gently:  “She must of cut into your pride a lot.”

“Oh, if it was known,” said Cartwright, turning pale at the thought, “she’d make me a laughing stock!  Me, old Cartwright’s son!”

“Yep, that’d be bad.”  He wondered at the frank egoism of the youth.

“I leave it to you,” said Cartwright, settling back in his chair.  “Something had ought to be done to punish her.  Besides, she’s a weight on your hands, and I can see you’d be anxious to get rid of her quick.”

“How d’you aim to punish her?” asked Sinclair.


“Sure!  Kind of a hard thing to do, wouldn’t it be?”

Cartwright’s eyes grew small.  “Ways could be found.”  He swallowed hard.  “I’d find a heap of ways to make her wish she’d died sooner’n shame me!”

“I s’pose you could,” said Sinclair slowly.  He lowered his glance for a moment to keep his scorn from standing up in his eyes.  “But I’ve heard of men, Cartwright, that’d love a woman so hard that they’d forgive anything.”

“The world’s full of fools,” said the rich rancher.  He stabbed a stern forefinger into the palm of his other hand.  “She’s got to do a lot of explaining before I’ll look at her.  She’s got to make me an accounting of every day she’s spent since I last seen her at — ”

“At the wedding?” asked Sinclair cruelly.

Cartwright writhed in the chair till it groaned beneath his uneasy weight.  “She told you that?”

“Look here,” went on Sinclair, assuming a new tone of frank inquiry.  “Let’s see if we can’t find out why she left you?”

“They ain’t any reason — just plain fool woman, that’s all.”

“But maybe she didn’t love you, Cartwright.  Did you ever think of that?”

The big man stared.  “Not love me?  Who would she love, then?  Was they anybody in them parts that could bring her as much as I could?  Was they anybody that had as good a house as mine, or as much land, or as much cattle?  Didn’t I take her over the ground and show her what it amounted to?  Didn’t I offer her her pick of my own string of riding horses?”

“Did you do as much as that?”

“Sure I did.  She wouldn’t have lacked for nothing.”

“You sure must have loved her a lot,” insinuated Sinclair.  “Must have been plumb foolish about her.”

“Oh, I dunno about that.  Love is one thing that ain’t bothered me none.  I got important interests, Sinclair.  I’m a business man.  And this here marriage was a business proposition.  Her dad was a business man, and he fixed it all up for us.  It was to tie the two biggest bunches of land together that could be found in them parts.  Anyway” — he grinned — “I got the land!”

“And why not let the girl go, then?”

“Why?” asked Cartwright eagerly.  “Who wants her?  You?”

“Maybe, if you’d let her go.”

“Not in a thousand years!  She’s mine.  They ain’t no face but hers that I can see opposite to me at the table — not one!  Besides, she’s mine, and I’m going to keep her — after I’ve taught her a lesson or two!”

Sinclair wiped his forehead hastily.  Eagerness to jump at the throat of the man consumed him.  He forced a smile on his thin lips and persistently looked down.

“But think how easy it’d be, Cartwright.  Think how easy you could get a divorce on the grounds of desertion.”

“And drag all this shame into the courts?”

“They’s ways of hushing these here things up.  It’d be easy.  She wouldn’t put up no defense, mostlike.  You’d win your case.  And if anybody asked questions, they’d simply say she was crazy, and that you was lucky to get rid of her.  They wouldn’t blame you none.  And it wouldn’t be no disgrace to be deserted by a crazy woman, would it?”

Cartwright drew back into a shell of opposition.  “You talk pretty hot for this.”

“Because I’m telling you the way out for both of you.”

“I can’t see it.  She’s coming back to me.  Nobody else is going to get her.  I’ve set my mind on it!”

“Partner, don’t you see that neither of you could ever be happy?”

“Oh, we’d be happy enough.  I’d forgive her — after a while.”

“Yes, but what about her?”

“About her?  Why, curse her, what right has she got to be considered?”

“Cartwright, she doesn’t love you.”

The bulldog came into the face of Cartwright and contorted it.  “Don’t she belong to me by law?  Ain’t she sworn to — ”

“Don’t” said Sinclair, as if the words strangled him.  “Don’t say that, Cartwright, if you please!”

“Why not?  You put up a good slick talk, Sinclair.  But you don’t win.  I ain’t going to give her up by no divorce.  I’m going to keep her.  I don’t love her enough to want her back, I hate her enough.  They’s only one way that I’d stop caring about — stop fearing that she’d shame me.  And that’s by having her six feet underground.  But you, Sinclair, you need coin.  You’re footloose.  Suppose you was to take her and bring her to — ”

“Don’t!” cried Sinclair again.  “Don’t say it, Cartwright.  Think it over again.  Have mercy on her, man.  She could make some home happy.  Are you going to destroy that chance?”

“Say, what kind of talk is this?” asked the big man.

“Now,” said Sinclair, “look to your own rotten soul!”

The strength of Cartwright was cut away at the root.  The color was struck out of his face as by a mortal blow.  “What d’you mean?” he whispered.

“You don’t deserve a man’s chance, but I’m going to give it to you.  Go get your gun, Cartwright!”

Cartwright slunk back in his chair.  “Do you mean murder, Sinclair?”

“I mean a fair fight.”

“You’re a gunman.  You been raised and trained for gunfighting.  I wouldn’t have no chance!”

Sinclair controlled his scorn.  “Then I’ll fight left-handed.  I’m a right-handed man, Cartwright, and I’ll take you with my gun in my left hand.  That evens us up, I guess.”

“No, it don’t!”

But with the cry on his lips, the glance of Cartwright flickered past Sinclair.  He grew thoughtful, less flabby.  He seemed to be calculating his chances as his glance rested on the window.

“All right,” he whispered, a fearful eye on Sinclair, as if he feared the latter would change his mind.  “Gimme a fair break.”

“I’ll do it.”

Sinclair shifted his gun to his left hand and turned to look at the window which Cartwright had been watching with such intense interest.  He had not half turned, however, when a gun barked at his very ear, it seemed, a tongue of flame spat in from the window, there was a crash of glass, and the lamp was snuffed.  Some accurate shot had cut the burning wick out of the lamp with his bullet, so nicely placed that, though the lamp reeled, it did not fall.