Read CHAPTER 28 of The Rangeland Avenger, free online book, by Max Brand, on

She dropped to her knees, and with a sudden, hysterical strength she was able to turn him on his back.  He was dead.  The first glimpse of his face told her that.  She looked up into the eyes of the murderer.

Arizona was methodically cleaning his gun.  His color had not changed.  There was a singular placidity about all his movements.

“I just hurried up what was coming to him,” said Arizona coolly, as he finished reloading his Colt.  “Sinclair was after him, and that meant he was done for.”

Oddly enough, she found that she was neither very much afraid of the fat man, nor did she loathe him for his crime.  He seemed outside of the jurisdiction of the laws which govern most men.

“You said Sinclair is in jail.”

“Sure, and he is.  But they don’t make jails strong enough in these parts to hold Sinclair.  He’d have come out and landed Sandersen, just as he’s going to come out and land Cartwright.  What has he got agin’ Cartwright, d’you know?”

Oh, it was incredible that he could talk so calmly with the dead man before him.

“I don’t know,” she murmured and drew back.

“Well, take it all in all,” pursued Arizona, “this deal of mine is pretty rotten, but you’d swing just the same for one murder as for two.  They won’t hang you no deader, eh?  And when they come to look at it, this is pretty neat.  Sandersen wasn’t no good.  Everybody knowed that.  But he had one thing I wanted — which was you and the twenty-five hundred that goes with the gent that brings you into Sour Creek.  So, at the price of one bullet, I get the coin.  Pretty neat, I say ag’in.”

Dropping the revolver back into the holster he patted it with a caressing hand.

“There’s your gun,” went on Arizona, chuckling.  “It’s got a bullet fired out of it.  There’s Sandersen’s gun with no bullet fired, showing that, while he was stalking you, you shot and drilled him.  Here’s my gun with no sign of a shot fired.  Which proves that I just slid in here and stuck you up from behind, while you were looking over the gent you’d just killed.”

He rubbed his hands together, and bracing himself firmly on his stubby legs, looked almost benevolently on Jig.

Not only did she lose her horror of him, but she gained an impersonal, detached interest in the workings of his mind.  She looked on him not as a man but as a monster in the guise of a man.

“Two deaths,” she said quietly, “for your money.  You work cheaply, Arizona.”

Jig’s criticism seemed to pique him.

“How come?”

“Sandersen’s death by your bullet, and mine when I die in the law.  Both to your account, Arizona, because you know I’m innocent.”

“I know it, but a hunch ain’t proof in the eyes of the law.  Besides, I don’t work so cheap.  Sandersen was no good.  He ain’t worth thinking about.  And as for you, Jig, though I don’t like to throw it in your face, as a schoolteacher you may be all right, but as a man you ain’t worth a damn.  Nope.  I won’t give neither of you a thought — except for Sinclair.”


“Him and you have been bunkies, if he ever should find out what I done, he’d go on my trail.  Maybe he will anyway.  And he’s a bad one to have on a gent’s trail.”

“You fear him?” she asked curiously, for it had seemed impossible that this cold-blooded gunman feared any living thing.

He rolled a cigarette meditatively before he answered.

“Sure,” he said, “I fear him.  I ain’t a fool.  It was him that started me, and him that gave me the first main lessons.  But I ain’t got the nacheral talent with a gun that Sinclair has got.”

Nodding his head in confirmation, his expression softened, as with the admiration of one artist for a greater kindred spirit.

“The proof is that they’s a long list of gunfights in Sinclair’s past, but not more deaths than you can count on the fingers of one hand.  And them that he killed was plumb no good.  The rest he winged and let ’em go.  That’s his way, and it takes an artist with a gun to work like that.  Yep, he’s a great man, curse him!  Only one weak thing I ever hear of him doing.  He buckled to the sheriff and told him where to find you!”

Scratching a match on his trousers, the cowpuncher was amazed to hear Jig cry:  “You lie!”

He gaped at her until the match singed his fingers.  “That’s a tolerable loud word for a kid to use!”

Apparently he meditated punishment, but then he shrugged his shoulders and lighted his cigarette.

“Wild horses couldn’t have dragged it out of him!” Jig was repeating.

“Say,” said the fat man, grinning, “how d’you know I knew where you was?”

Like a blow in the face it silenced her.  She looked miserably down to the ground.  Was it possible that Sinclair had betrayed her?  Not for the murder of Quade.  He would be more apt to confess that himself, and indeed she dreaded the confession.  But if he let her be dragged back, if her identity became known, she faced what was more horrible to her than hanging, and that was life with Cartwright.

“Which reminds me,” said Arizona, “that the old sheriff may not wait for morning before he starts after you.  Just slope down the hill and saddle your hoss, will you?”

Automatically she obeyed, wild thoughts running through her mind.  To go back to Sour Creek meant a return to Cartwright, and then nothing could save her from him.  Halfway to her saddle her foot struck metal, her own gun, which Arizona had dropped after firing the bullet.  Was there not a possibility of escape?  She heard Arizona humming idly behind her.  Plainly he was entirely off guard.

Bending with the speed of a bird in picking up a seed, she scooped up the gun, whirling with the heavy weapon extended, her forefinger curling on the trigger.  But, as she turned, the humming of Arizona changed to a low snarl.  She saw him coming like a bolt.  The gun exploded of its own volition, it seemed to her, but Arizona had swerved in his course, and the shot went wild.

The next instant he struck her.  The gun was wrenched from her hand, and a powerful arm caught her and whirled her up, only to hurl her to the ground; Arizona’s snarling, panting face bent over her.  In the very midst of that fury she felt Arizona stiffen and freeze; the snarling stopped; his nerveless arm fell away, and she was allowed to stagger to her feet.  She found him staring at her with a peculiar horror.

“Murdering guns!” whispered Arizona.

Now she understood that he knew.  She saw him changed, humbled, disarmed before her.  But even then she did not understand the profound meaning of that moment in the life of Arizona.

But to have understood, she would have had to know how that life began in a city slum.  She would have had to see the career of the sneak thief which culminated in the episode of the lumber camp eight years before.  She would have had to understand how the lesson from the hand of big Sinclair had begun the change which transformed the sneak into the dangerous man of action.  And now the second change had come.  For Arizona had made the unique discovery that he could be ashamed!

He would have laughed had another told him.  Virtue was a name and no more to the fat man.  But in spite of himself those eight years under free skies had altered him.  He had been growing when he thought he was standing still.  When the eye plunges forty miles from mountain to mountain, through crystal-clear air, the mind is enlarged.  He had lived exclusively among hard-handed men, rejoicing in a strength greater than their own.  He suddenly found that the feeble hand from which he had so easily torn the weapon a moment before, had in an instant acquired strength to make or break him.

All that Jig could discern of this was that her life was no longer in danger, and that her enemy had been disarmed.  But she was not prepared for what followed.

Dragging off his hat, as if he acted reluctantly, his eyes sank until they rested on the ground at her feet.

“Lady,” he said, “I didn’t know.  I didn’t even dream what you was.”