3320212The Sheriff of Pecos — Chapter 3H. Bedford-Jones



JAKE HARPER had once been a very large man. Now he was a little bowed with age, a bit heavy with superfluous flesh, his hair quite white, his face seamed with heavy lines. The old eyes were keen as ever; the heavy mustache, fresh dyed a lustrous black, gave the beholder a decided shock when contrasted with white hair and brows. He rode a huge, rawboned beast whose eye was roving and vicious—a brute named Celestine. No man but Jake had ever ridden her, and no man wanted to. Celestine had a reputation.

When he came upon Arnold and Robinson waiting in the road, Jake Harper drew rein very abruptly: At sight of Robinson's laughing gaze, a shock of surprise crossed his seamed features. His eyes opened wide.

"For the love of Mike!" he uttered. "You!"

"C'rect the first shot as usual, Jake. Sure's my name's Jack Robinson, it's me! I been having quite a bit o' talk with Arnold; friendly and peaceable. How're you, Jake?"

They shook hands warmly. Suddenly old Jake broke into a storm of affectionate curses. His huge paw pounded Robinson on the back again and again.

"Boy, I'm glad to see ye!" he cried, lustily roaring the words. "Dog-gone it, I'm the happiest man in the Territory—State, I mean. Hurray! By gosh, if I'd knowed it was you under that black {nowrap|hat——"}}

"Uh-huh." Robinson's eyes crinkled. "I thought you was layin' up there in the brush, most likely. Right here and now, Jake, I utters heartfelt thanks. Sure's my name's Jack Robinson, I ain't a bit scart to explore the other world, but I don't aim to do it any sooner than I have to. If you hadn't attended to Mr. Knute, I'd certain sure be wandering lonesome and lonely the other side Jordan this minute. That's what comes of bein' a stranger, now. Say, Sam Fisher said to tell you he couldn't get away, so I come instead."

"Huh?" Jake Harper puffed out his cheeks. "Oh, he did, did he? Durned fool, that Sam Fisher! Got a big repytation and ain't got the nerve to live up to it! Hey, Arnold! What in time are you exposin' your flannels for thataway?"

Arnold grinned. "I got swiped by a long-distance bee, thirty-thirty caliber," he said. "If you ain't got no objections, Jake, where's Matt Brady and Knute?"

Jake Harper twirled his vivid black mustache. "I dunno," he responded thoughtfully. "I could make a blamed good guess where they ain't, though; they ain't reposin' on no fleecy clouds with a harp in each hand! This here Jack Robinson is severeal seconds faster'n Matt Brady was, Arnold; yes, sir, severeal! Guess I'd better give him a job, hadn't I?"

Arnold put out his hand to Robinson again, and they shook. "Guess you had, Jake," he responded. "They tried the old game on the stranger, eh? Knute off to one side?"

"Uh-huh—blamed near got him, too, only I was watchin' the trail. Let's travel, gents. We got to git home 'fore dark."

"You seem to have met before," observed Arnold.

"Once or twice," said Robinson, and chuckled. A huge billow of laughter shook the big frame of Jake Harper, as though there were some unuttered joke.

After this they rode on in silence. Jake Harper, old Indian fighter, ex-scout, plainsman, and borderer, was plainly in high fettle over the day's events. Every now and again his eye rested upon the slim figure of Jack Robinson, and a vast good humor rolled into his features. The presence of this young man appeared hugely gratifying to him.

"Ain't been so happy," he blurted, breaking the silence only once, "since me and ol' John Parker met up with Gen'ral Reno one day in San Francisco, all three of us plumb lonesome, and not knowin' they was a friend in ten miles. Sure is good to see ye, boy."

Robinson nodded, but did not respond.

It was dusk when they reached the Harper ranch. Robinson left his pinto at the corral, shook hands with half a dozen punchers whom he could scarcely see, and followed Jake Harper to the big house on the knoll. As soon as he set foot in the porch, Jake turned.

"The house is yourn!" he said emphatically. "Set an' talk! We eats with the boys when supper's ready. Meantime, talk!"

"Suits me." Robinson dropped into a chair. "You weren't in town to-day?"

"Nope." Jake Harper lowered his bulk into a groaning rocker. "I got so danged much rheumatiz lately it's knocked me up. You didn't meet Mig Cervantes?"

"Uh-huh. Met him and Buck and Mike and a man calling himself Murphy, only he was Matt Brady's brother—Pincher. Maybe you remember him? Bad to the backbone."

"You met 'em?" asked Jake Harper. "All of 'em?"

Robinson laughed softly. "Yep. Also Sheriff Tracy. I left town in a hurry. Pincher Brady has a sore hand, but no one was hurt. By the way, I had quite a long talk with Frank Shumway last week."

"My lord! You did?" Jake Harper was eager, incredulous, astonished. "How come? Thought Buck was keeping a close watch on things."

"Sam Fisher sent me up to the pen," Robinson chuckled. "Frank gets out next spring. He's in pretty fair shape, but badly worried. I bucked him up and promised we'd take care of everything here. By the way, Jake, Templeton Buck has a fine scheme lined out. He got Pincher Brady here to handle it. He bought the Shumway mortgage in Pincher's name—assumed name, I should say, of Murphy, He aims to let Murphy foreclose, then to step up and rescue Estella. I don't understand it all myself. Isn't Estella wise to him?"

Jake Harper tugged at his mustache.

"She is, and she ain't," he returned, rumbling his words. "Buck, he's played his cards mighty cute with her, allowing he's done all in his power to git Frank out of jail and so forth. Between you and me, I suspicions that Buck has got a friend in the post office, and that he ain't above monkeying with letters."

"That's old stuff," said Robinson calmly. "You folks up here have a fine county organization, looks like."

The insistent banging of a tin pan interrupted them, and they hastily departed.

Seated about the chuck table with the half-dozen Circle Bar boys, Robinson sized up things without much trouble. Except for Arnold, the Circle Bar had no young blood at all. An old Swede and his wife took care of the place. The foreman was a grizzled, crippled person who had helped to run down Geronimo—and held his job on the strength of it.

The other men were much of the same stamp, all of them elderly, one or two efficient, but working for Jake Harper because they had appealed to his soft side, not because they were first-class range men. Jake introduced Robinson as a new hand who was going to do some special work for him, and let it go at that. Few of the men paid much attention or seemed interested.

To Robinson the meal was tragic. He had looked for help here, and found none. When it was over, he pushed back his chair and left. Out in the open air, he found Arnold at his elbow, with a quiet chuckle.

"Live bunch, ain't it?" opined Arnold. "Looks to me, Red, like you was some disappointed."

"What at?" queried Robinson.

"Ain't my business." Arnold rolled a cigarette with elaborate carelessness. "Only, I ain't seen you throw no war bag into a bunk. I been thinkin' more or less about quittin' here anyhow, and applying for a job over to the Lazy S."

"Oh!" said Robinson. "Call you Mister Arnold over there, would they?"

"It's always been Steve around home."

"Oh! All right, Steve. You and me, what say we go ridin' for a change?"

"Your hoss look plumb wore out, Red."

"Maybe we can get Jake to lend us a bit o' flesh. What about it, Jake?" Robinson turned, as Jake Harper joined them under the stars. "Steve, here, he allows there's too much excitement around these parts to suit him. I agrees with him plenty. Can I put my rope on a couple of your broncs and get Steve to take me out and show me the country?"

Jake Harper inspected the two slender figures, hands on his hips.

"Dog-gone it!" he broke out plaintively. "Here I been ridin' and crawlin' in the bresh all day, and now you-all aims to go away, and figgers I'm too blamed wore out to trail along! Why don't you stick around and talk a while, Robinson?"

"What you want to go for, Jake?" queried Robinson softly. "S'pose Buck and Pincher Brady, or Murphy, comes ridin' along here in about half an hour to inquire about the red-headed stranger what took the wrong road to Laredo and met up with Matt Brady and Knute—huh? If you wasn't here, where'd I be? That's a conundrum."

"And what's the answer to the durned thing?" asked the old plainsman.

"That you're the fanciest liar ever I did see, Jake, when it's plumb necessary. Also, that you don't give a hoot for Buck—and if you was setting on your front porch with the lights out and a Winchester handy, Buck and his friends would be mighty slow about startin' any ructions with you."

"Oh!" said Jake, fingering his very black mustache. "I see! You think I'd lie to save your worthless neck?"

"You seen Matt Brady draw first, didn't you?"

"Uh-huh, now I think about it—he done so." Jake Harper chuckled. "That's all right, boy; I know what's stirrin' in your fool brain, too. Ye think the Circle Bar bunch is too old an' helpless to stir much, huh? Well, jest you go along. Take anything you fancy in the corral, boys, and remember me to Estella. I'll be over myself in a day or two."

Arnold and Robinson started away together, and lost themselves in the shadows near the corral. Robinson touched his companion's arm.

"Steve, any time you think old Jake is slow, guess again! Friend Buck is coming along here pretty soon, and he'll run into a surprise party. Meantime, we'll be elsewhere."

Steve Arnold grunted. "What you want to run for, then?"

"Me? I ain't running," and Robinson laughed. "I'm off to see the country, that's all. Maybe Miss Shumway will sort of take to me more, if you introduce me."

Arnold glanced at him suspiciously.

"You tryin' to run some joke on me, Red?"

"None a-tall, Steve; cross my heart! Sure's my name's Jack Robinson, I'm a quiet and peaceable stranger what always gets took in. When Jake Harper gets done orating to Buck, that affluent gentleman will give up lookin' for me, except by accident. He won't be real sure whether I'm workin' for Jake or not, and the Circle Bar boys won't be sure neither. In fact, nobody will be sure of anything, except you and me. That's the best way to play her, ain't it?"

"Looks all right," vouchsafed Arnold. "Got your saddle handy?"

Ten minutes later the two were quietly drawing away from the Circle Bar without making any effusive farewells. They had been riding for perhaps five minutes more, when both pulled up their horses suddenly. Across the night lifted the faint bang of a shotgun.

"That's Jake's old Brown Bess," said Steve. "Trouble back of us!"

Robinson held up a hand for silence. They sat motionless, listening. No further shot came, and Robinson relaxed with a soft laugh.

"Nope, no trouble. We slid out just in time, Steve. Buck comes riding up, and old Jake salutes him out of the darkness, then apologizes for the mistake. Savvy? Buck accepts the apology—otherwise we'd have heard real trouble a-starting. Let's go, cowboy!"

They merged into the darkness. The moon would not be up until midnight.