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Sunset Wins

Max Brand


  A Western Trio

  Max Brand®

  “The Gift” by Max Brand, Copyright © 1921 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1949 by Dorothy Faust.

  “Jerico’s Garrison Finish” by John Frederick, Copyright © 1921 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1949 by Dorothy Faust.

  “Sunset Wins” by George Owen Baxter, Copyright © 1923 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1951 by Dorothy Faust.

  The name Max Brand® is a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and cannot be used for any purpose without express written permission.

  E-book published in 2018 by Blackstone Publishing

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-5384-7479-2

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-5384-7478-5

  Ficction / Westerns

  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520

  The Gift


  There was not a breath of wind. The storm which had howled across the mountains for well-nigh a fortnight was now gone. It left the summits and all the higher valleys moon-white with snow. And over this snow the moon itself, rising early, cast the dark pointed shadows of the pines. The silence was as profound as the arch of the sky, as pure as the shining stars. It was a hallowed quiet, well fitted for this night above all nights, Christmas Eve.

  Over the white summit the rider came like a stain, and the shape of his galloping horse, struggling, misshapen over crusted snows beside him, made a bitter contrast with the still shadows of the pines. The rider brought an element of labor and effort into a place where there should have been only the white, sleeping mountains and the dark, sleeping trees.

  But he saw no beauty in what lay around him, and because he saw no beauty, all beauty ceased to exist. The peaks and their forested sides became of less importance. The whole focus of interest was on that lonely, frightened horseman.

  About his fear there was no doubt. When he reached a hilltop, he invariably looked back and sighed with relief when he saw, perhaps, an empty upslope behind. Yet his sense of security was ever short-lived, and the next instant he would be spurring wildly down the grade beyond, as though danger dogged him in the very shadow of his horse.

  He came headlong as a landslide into the great hush of Bender Valley, coursing through the trees almost regardless of the windings of the trail, then sheering straight off to the left, where there was no trail at all, only the solidity of the forest. The panting of his horse, the grunt of pain as the poor beast slipped and recovered in the snow, became more audible in the quiet of this wood. Trees are almost like mirrors. They reflect the souls of those who come among them. To Shorty Dugan these pines seemed stealing close to him, listening and watching and keeping the tidings of that which they had seen.

  Still he spurred. And under the goad the pinto lunged ahead with shrinking quarters, as though into a collar, without really increasing his speed. That collar was utter exhaustion. He went no faster, because it was impossible for the outworn mustang to swing his legs faster or drive them more strongly through the snow.

  He stumbled into a little clearing. It was so small that the trees seemed to lean out toward it from all sides. Shorty Dugan flung himself out of the saddle and landed in the snow, sprawling and slipping, for long riding had numbed his legs. The horse, relieved from the burden, dropped his head, spread his trembling legs, and puffed great clouds of frosty breath into the moonshine. Shorty flung the beast a curse over his shoulder as he regained his footing; it was Shorty’s habit to curse the nearest living object whenever a mishap overtook him.

  Then he stumbled on toward the cabin. It was very small. The shadow from the eastern treetops cut across it. One half of the cabin was lost in blackness. The other half was dead-white in the moonshine and, against this whiteness like a jewel on a dead face, a yellow lamplight glimmered in a single window.

  In spite of his haste, Shorty checked his rush. He stole to the side of the shack, peered through under a shading hand at the interior of the lighted room, and then, nodding in satisfaction, hurried back toward the front door. No sooner had he opened it and sprung into the darkness within—for his agility redoubled as the blood ran warm again through his muscles—than the door was slammed shut again and he himself was tripped and pitched to his face, falling right into the yellow shaft of light that came through the open door of the room in which he had seen the lamp.

  He yelled as he dropped, whirled in falling, and tugged at his gun, but he found himself lying on his back, looking up along the barrel of a long Colt and into a quiet, thin, shadowy face behind it.

  “Don’t!” he gasped. “Don’t! I’m Shorty! Don’t shoot!”

  The other touched him scornfully with a toe and slipped his gun back into its holster.

  “Get up!” he commanded.

  Shorty obediently clambered back to his feet.

  “Don’t you know me?” he kept whimpering. “Don’t you know I’m all right? Don’t you know me?”

  “I don’t know nobody,” said the man of the cabin. “I don’t know nobody that comes tearing into my house without knocking or nothing.”

  “I seen you sitting all quiet in your chair in the other room a minute ago and I thought … and … I’m Shorty. You know me?”

  This disjointed and frightened speech made the tall man smile.

  “I don’t know you,” he said in a grave tone, which had in it a certain hardness of contempt. “I ain’t seen you for three months. Maybe you ain’t what you used to be.”

  “Wait till you hear what I got to tell you!” exclaimed Shorty. “Maybe you think I been bought off or something. Is that it?”

  “Go inside where I can get a look at you,” ordered the host.

  Shorty obeyed, and he was followed into the cozy little living room by the other. They were opposed types. Shorty lived up to his name. He had the short, bowed legs which generally connote strength. A barrel chest, short, thick neck, bulldog face, and fighting features made him, so far as was physically possible, different from the lithe man of the cabin. The other was above six feet in height and looked still taller. He had gray eyes, almost colorless and very steady, and his thin features were of a cruelly predatory cast. His contempt and reserve now had a biting edge.

  “In the old days,” he said, “as chief I would’ve horsewhipped a gent that come blundering in like this.” He added, as though aware that he had gone too far: “Not that that’s really my way. Only, I don’t like to be busted in on like this. Lucky for you I waited to make out who you were.”

  Shorty changed color. “You might of knowed by the way I come smashing in that I was a friend.”

  “Never mind what I knowed. You said you had a message for me?”

  “A big one, too,” said Shorty, swelling suddenly with importance. “Happy Jack’s coming! Happy Jack himself!”

  “Never heard of him. Who’s he?”

  “Who’s he?” gasped Shorty. “You don’t know Happy? Why … why …”

  He blundered hopelessly, as a man will when confronted with the necessity of defining some great abstraction. Suppose one were to be asked to define lightning.

  “You remember young Jackson,” began Shorty, feeling his way toward an explanation, “the gent you had us bunco out of
the claim? The gent that Murphy drilled?”


  “Happy Jack’s his friend. He found out that you were behind the killing, and he’s started on your trail.”

  “And you come a hundred and fifty … two hundred miles to tell me that? To tell me that some gent I never heard of is out for me? Say, Shorty, are you plumb crazy? Do you know me?”

  This biting contempt stung Shorty. The blood gathered dark in his tanned face.

  “Listen, chief,” he said, “you know these parts, but you don’t know things in the south. Was Murphy a good man with a gun?”

  “Was he a good man?” answered the other, frowning. “Yes, and he still is. One of the very best. I trained him myself. How come you say ‘was’?”

  “He’ll never pull a gat again,” answered Shorty, reveling in this chance of overwhelming the other. “He’ll never pull a gun again, Sandy Crisp.”

  With a profound relish he watched the gray eyes of Crisp contract and glitter beneath the colorless, bushy brows.

  “Happy Jack met him. There was a fair gun play. Jack beat him a mile. Jack shot him down. He smashed Murphy’s shoulder to smithereens. Murphy’ll never pull a gun again.”

  Sandy moistened his colorless lips. “Go on,” he said almost gently.

  “He found out from Murphy, Happy did,” went on Shorty, “that you was behind the buncoing and the killing of young Jackson, the tenderfoot. Seems Jackson used to be a friend of his. Happy was on the trail of them that done for him. When he found out that Murphy was only a tool of yours, he left Murphy and started north. Then I come like a whirlwind. I’ve changed horses twice, and the plug I got outside is plumb spent. Chief, climb on your horse and run.”

  There was more curiosity than fear in the manner of the chief.

  “You think I’d better not wait for him? Not even with you here to help me? Or will he come with a band?”

  “He’s a lone rider, chief. But you ain’t going to have me here with you. No, sir! I’m gone again, pronto. I know how good you are. I’ve seen you work half a dozen times. I ain’t any slouch myself when it comes to a pinch. But stay here and wait for Happy?” He laughed without mirth in his voice. “Nope, I ain’t tired of life.”

  “He’s as bad an actor as all that, eh?”

  “Go south,” said Shorty. “Go south and ask about him.”

  “What’s he done?”

  “Plenty. And he’s so good that he don’t have to shoot to kill. He fights for the love of fighting. That’s all. And he’s so fast and so sure with a gat that he just nicks a gent and drops him.”

  “I’ve heard about that kind.” The chief curled his lip as he spoke.

  “I’ve seen him do it,” said Shorty, with an ire of almost religious awe. “I’ve seen him do it.” His voice was hardly more than a whisper. “He could’ve killed Murphy ten times. He didn’t.”

  “You saw the fight and didn’t try to help Murphy?”

  “I saw the fight and buckled the flap of my holster, so that devil wouldn’t pay no attention to me.”

  “Hmm,” muttered the other. “This gent hypnotizes folks, maybe. Old?”


  “How’s he look?”

  “Fine-looking. Clean as a whistle. Blue eyes. Tall as you and big, heavy shoulders and a tapering build.”

  “And you think I wouldn’t have no chance against him?”

  “I don’t think. I know.”

  “I’ve never been beat, Shorty.”

  “I know. But this gent … I don’t know how it is … but I figure his luck is all before him. He ain’t used it up yet. The time ain’t come for him to lose. So long, chief. I’m gone.”

  “Wait a minute, you fool! Does he know … did Murphy tell him … where this cabin is?”


  “Then he’ll never get me. Nobody knows about it except our boys.”

  “He’ll find it. He’ll smell it out.”


  “How does a buzzard find a dead one when its clean out of sight?” asked Shorty.

  He waited for no more talk, but flung himself out of the room, and Sandy Crisp went to the window and pressed his face close to the frosted glass after rubbing out an eyehole. He saw Shorty mount with frantic haste and, glancing over his shoulder, spur his reeling cow pony into the shadow of the trees. There was something ludicrous in his fear of nothingness, and it set Sandy smiling.

  The smile was still lingering on his lips when he turned from the window and saw, leaning against the doorjamb, a tall, broad-shouldered youth who was rolling a cigarette. But his blue eyes were not fastened on his work, they were regarding, with a sort of amusement, the features of his host.


  Whatever the thoughts which passed through the agile mind of Sandy Crisp—and judging by the flicker of his glance about the room there were many—the idea of striking at once at the invader was not executed. Instead, he deliberately turned his back on the silent visitor, walked across the room, drew up a chair before the fire on the open hearth, and waved the stranger to another seat.

  “Sit down and rest your legs, Happy,” he said. “Sit down and make yourself to home. If you’re cold inside as well as out, I got some moonshine that ain’t half bad.”

  “Thanks,” said the other, lighting his cigarette with a deft left hand, as Sandy noted with a side glance. “I see that kind these days when liquor’s hard to come at, but I don’t use the stuff myself. It’s hard on the eyes.”

  Sandy Crisp nodded, grinning.

  “I didn’t think you’d come in on that old game,” he said, “but a gent never can tell. Sometimes the wisest step into the oldest door. Sit down?”


  Happy Jack walked slowly across the room. The moment he came into the yellow of the firelight, Sandy could appreciate how truly big and powerful the stranger was, and the easy grace which told of strong muscles flowing in smooth harmony. He was handsome in a singularly boyish way. His face was brown as a berry, which made his eyes a more startling blue. His whole expression gave an index to mischief, rather than cruelty, in the heart of the man. A single glance at his face was enough to justify his nickname: Happy. In age he might be from twenty-four to twenty-six. This faint, quizzical smile with which he now regarded his host made him seem even younger. Sandy was favoring him with an equally calm regard.

  “You don’t seem in no special hurry,” remarked Happy Jack.

  “I’m not,” answered Sandy. “I’m trying to place you. I seen you somewhere once.”

  “Ever been south as far as Tuckertown?”


  “Then you’ve never seen me.”

  Sandy shook his head. “I’ve seen you or a ringer for you,” he went on genially. “Well, kid, you’ve sure got ambitious, ain’t you? Stepping right out to make a name for yourself by dropping Sandy Crisp.”

  His cold mockery did not disturb the quiet content that brooded ceaselessly in the blue eyes of the stranger. His expression was as mild as that of a child when it sees a new and curious toy for the first time.

  “I ain’t been thinking about collecting any fame for myself,” he answered, smiling and showing a flashing line of white teeth. “You see, down my way they don’t know you, Crisp. You ain’t even a name.”

  “I guess you’ll have to tell ’em about me, then,” went on Sandy, still sneering to break down the nerve of the younger man.

  “I don’t advertise much,” replied the other.

  Sandy Crisp bit his lip. This was not at all to his liking. Such perfect solidity of calm amazed him. His mind reverted to something Shorty had said. The luck of this handsome youth seemed all before him and undrained. Calamity, failure, could not even be dreamed of in connection with those laughing blue eyes. All that could be wondered at was the possibility that fighting rage, the
lust for battle, would come into that boyish face. It was inconceivable. A strange hollowness appeared, now, in Sandy Crisp’s stomach, a chill struck up along his back. His fingers were growing uncertain. A sense of weakness flowed through him. What could this be?

  It was fear! He knew it suddenly and with a devitalizing pang. He, Sandy Crisp, the invincible, the cold-hearted, the dangerous in battle, was afraid. And yet an imp of the perverse drove him on to draw out his young visitor.

  “Not fame?” echoed Sandy, sneering now to conceal the whiteness which he felt must be growing about the edges of his mouth. “That ain’t what’s brought you up here? It was simply because you wanted to get square for the killing of young Jackson, eh? You trying to tell me that you were that fond of the fool?”

  “Was he a fool?” answered the other, snapping his cigarette butt into the fire.

  As he spoke he lifted his head, and Sandy Crisp saw that the boyishness was gone from the face before him. The nostrils were beginning to quiver, the mouth to straighten.

  “He was fool enough to trust men,” said Happy Jack. “That’s what Jackson was fool enough to do. He trusted me. He put me up and fed me and took care of me and staked me and sent me on my way without ever expecting to get anything back for it. He took me in because I was hungry. And when I went off and got a stake and come back to pay him what I owed him, I found him dead. You hear? Dead!”

  He had changed still more while he spoke. He was rising from his chair as though great forces within now fought for a chance to exorcise themselves. And a veritable flame of rage was burning in his eyes.

  “Him you call a fool was dead, and you’d done it through your man Murphy. I fixed Murphy, and then I started for you. I’ve found you, and you’re going to pay, Crisp, so that my pal, Jackson, seeing you go down, will know I ain’t forgotten what a gent owes to his partner.”

  He sprang to the center of the room.

  “I’ve come here and waited, hoping to hear you say you were sorry for the dirty murder you had Murphy work. But you ain’t sorry for nothing. You killed Jackson. You left his wife and his three kids with nothing to keep them except sorrowing for him you killed. Does that worry you? Not a bit! You got no heart, Crisp, and I’m going to kill you with a smile … same’s I’d kill a snake or a mad dog, because you ain’t a human.”