IT WAS late afternoon when Jack Robinson rode into the town of Pahrump, county seat of the county of the same name. The town was deserted apparently; somnolent and sleepy. The afternoon stage was not yet in with the mail. The courthouse square, with its long hitching rail, seemed abandoned to flies and sunlight. Even the jail and sheriff's office looked desolate; across the street from this last, Mike's Place showed not a sign of life.
Robinson went to the hotel and turned his horse into the corral there, leaving his saddle and bridle in the hotel office for safe-keeping. He then made his way to Main Street and sought the telegraph office. There was no line in Pahrump, but the telephone exchange handled messages. At the exchange, Robinson smiled at the young woman in charge.
"I left a message here yesterday, ma'am, askin' you to hold up any answer. Name of Fisher."
Without comment the young woman handed him a message. Robinson pocketed it, returned to the street, glanced at the message, and chuckled.
"What I need is grub, a bath, and a shave," he reflected. "Fresh shirt wouldn't hurt anything, not to mention a clean handkerchief. Grub can come last."
The stage and express office, an integral unit with the Johnson Merchandise Company, lay across the street. Robinson betook himself thither and confronted a listless clerk.
"What's all the excitement about in town?" he demanded. The clerk saw no humor in the question, but answered it seriously:
"Two men shot up yesterday; sheriff's gone out with a posse. Dunno why."
"I don't know why, either," said Robinson cheerfully. "You ought to have a pair of saddlebags sent up by express from Pecos City. Name of Fisher."
"Come in last night," was the response.
The saddlebags over his arm, Robinson went to the barber shop. There he obtained a shave, followed by a bath, and from the saddlebags he spruced up with a clean shirt and handkerchief—also a second gun.
His pilgrimage now took him to the nearest and only restaurant, where he put away a huge order of ham and eggs, with other things. This done, he dropped his saddlebags at the hotel, loosened his belt, bought a cigar, and sauntered down the street again. Thus far he had seen no signs of Mr. Murphy, and he rightly concluded that the gentleman was sequestered in or about Mike's Place.
These errands had taken up considerable time. The stage was nearly due, and the town showed some symptoms of animation. Horses fringed the long hitching rail in the square. A number of loungers about the sheriff's office showed that the posse had returned. Unhurried, Robinson sauntered to the post office and presented a smiling face at the window.
"Mail for Fisher, please," he requested.
The postmaster fished several long envelopes from a box, glanced at them, then gave Robinson a hard look.
"Nothin' fer you, I guess."
"Your mistake, mister," and Robinson smiled. "Those letters are for me, I believe."
"These here is for Sheriff Sam Fisher o' Pecos County."
Robinson drew a flat metal object from his pocket and laid it on the shelf.
"Does that satisfy you? If not, I'll come around and get my own mail."
The postmaster glanced at the sheriff's badge, silently shoved out the letters, and stared at Robinson as that young man departed.
Without looking at his mail, Robinson took his easy way to the sheriff's office. He nodded to the loungers outside, and passed in. At the door which bore the sheriff's name he paused. Turning the handle, he walked in.
Sheriff Tracy was seated at a desk, alone in the room. He looked up, saw who his visitor was, and gasped. Then his hand slid across the desk.
"Don't!" said Robinson, and Tracy looked into a gun. "Set back; I dropped in for a quiet talk. Also, I aim to use your office a spell."
"You impudent scoundrel!" gasped the sheriff. "Look here! What d'you know about that shooting on the north road yesterday?"
"Know all about it," responded Robinson coolly, closing the door and drawing up a chair opposite the sheriff. He sat down and laid the gun before him. "In fact, I done it. Now, set still and don't call in anybody just yet. We got to have a talk. First, I want to look at this here mail, if you don't object."
He put the letters on the desk and spread them out. Tracy's glance fell to them. A start of surprise, and his gaze returned to Robinson's face.
"Whose mail you got there, Robinson?"
"My own." Robinson smiled thinly, knowing that Tracy had read the name on that mail.
There was a moment of silence. Tracy surveyed his cool visitor with frightful uneasiness, licked his lips, tugged at his mustache. Then:
"Well, what you want here?"
"Several things, sheriff. I'll be real busy to-morrow, so I thought we'd better get all fixed up to-day. Got to go out to the Lazy S to-night with the preacher and attend to the funerals to-morrow."
"Funerals? At the Lazy S? What in time d'you mean?"
"Shootin'; somebody murdered Miguel Cervantes this mornin'. Shot him twice in the back."
The sheriff leaped from his chair. Robinson's hand went to his gun, and Tracy sat down again, breathing hard.
"Who done it?"
"Now, sheriff, don't go to askin' me unpleasant questions. One of the gents that done it is real dead. The other gent is going over the road for it—in my care."
"You may be Sam Fisher and you may not," he said aggressively, "but you ain't walkin' into my county and givin' no orders, stranger. That's plumb final. You got no authority here; not a mite."
"I know it," said Robinson sweetly. "But I aim to get that authority real sudden. Now don't go to causing any trouble, Sheriff Tracy. In about ten minutes from now you got to saddle up and take quite a journey, and I'd hate to make you take a longer journey than is necessary."
"Saddle up! Me?" queried Tracy, red-faced.
"Yep. First thing, you look over this here telegram. It's about a gent named Murphy, which same is sojournin' in our midst. Since somebody wants him bad enough to offer three hundred dollars for him, you'd ought to be interested in picking up the money."
He laid his telegram on the desk. Tracy read it. His face was a study in mingled emotions. Finally he looked up at Fisher with a complete change of front.
"I guess you're Sam Fisher, all right," he observed. "They say he's got the devil's own nerve, and you sure show it. But you're making a terrible mistake butting into things like this, Fisher. You don't know this here county——"
"Here's my badge for proof, and my mail," said Robinson. "I'm Sam Fisher—fact is, I never said right out that I was Robinson. Folks just took that for granted. You and the old gang are plumb out of luck, Tracy. I got no hard feelings against you, and I'm going to give you the chance to slide out of town, avoid trouble, and pick up three hundred iron men. In other words, take Mr. Murphy to the railroad and go away with him. By the time you get back the trouble will be all over and you'll have a clean slate."
Tracy, breathing hard, surveyed his visitor with anxious eyes.
"Don't get hasty now," warned Robinson—or, to use his real name, Sam Fisher. "And don't get to thinking about Templeton Buck and how much power he has. He ain't going to have much left when I get through with him, Tracy. I s'pose he's given out orders that poor Jack Robinson has got to be eliminated. Fact is, he thought he had me eliminated a few hours ago. That's all right; we'll leave Jack Robinson out of it. Sam Fisher has drawn cards in this game, and he's going to stick for the pot."
"Why don't you take Murphy, if you want him, and go?" demanded the sheriff.
"I don't want him. Three hundred bones means nothin' in my young life. Also, and moreover, I don't aim to go in that direction." Fisher's smile was cherubic. "You are gettin' off mighty easy, Tracy. All you got to do is to swear me in as a deputy and turn over the jail keys to me, then start travelin' with Murphy. I'll even go so far as to help you arrest him."
Tracy reddened again.
"Leave you here?" he said. "Not much! I ain't going to do no such thing "
"I said not to get hasty, didn't I?" Fisher's eyes hardened into blue steel.
"You can't run no riffle on me, Fisher!" blustered Tracy. "If I don't do it, then what?"
Fisher surveyed him a moment with that bitterly cold gaze.
"If you don't do it," he returned slowly, "then you got to make a heap big war talk, and do it sudden. Balance her up now, and make your play. I'm talkin' turkey."
In those tense features Tracy read the truth—this man was in to play the limit. And Tracy dared not back his hand; he could not trust his own cards. There was too much he did not know. He had been unable to find Buck that afternoon, and he was facing this crisis on his own backbone—which did not amount to much.
He had heard of Sam Fisher often and often. The sheriff of Pecos had a reputation, and stood behind it hard. Tracy could not tell just what this man would dare do, and he did not care to take chances on finding out.
On the other hand, he was offered a trip with a prisoner which would net him three hundred dollars reward money. He would be safely away while Fisher was playing his game. It would be certainly all right to leave Fisher, the sheriff of the next county, in charge of Pahrump while he was gone. And if Fisher got killed, what loss? None. If he did not get killed, he was apt to kill off several people who were behind Tracy. That would be no great loss either.
A grim smile curved the lips of Tracy.
"Sam, your arguments are powerful good," he said. "There's a couple o' deputies outside. If you want to have the ceremony over right away——"
"Fisher nodded, rose, and went to the door.
"Hey, fellers!" he called to the group outside. "Come inside; sheriff wants you."
Five men trooped in, eyeing Fisher with uneasy glances. Sheriff Tracy, having made his decision, lost no time in putting the job through.
"This here," he said, motioning to his visitor, "is Sam Fisher, sheriff o' Pecos County. I'm about to swear him in as deputy and leave him in charge of things here. Fisher, you want these deputies to work with you?"
Sam Fisher eyed the group and smiled.
"Nope, I'm satisfied to play a lone hand, Tracy. Much obliged for the offer."
"Very well. You boys can bear witness to this here affair, then you're free. Hold up your hand, Fisher——"
Sam Fisher was duly sworn as deputy sheriff, and Tracy handed him a badge. Fisher put it in his pocket with a grin. The startled, staring men behind him were dumfounded. Tracy then shoved over the jail keys.
"They's four brand-new cells," he said, "just installed, all the latest fittin's. The others ain't worth much 'cept for looks. Four will be plenty, I guess?"
"One," said Fisher significantly, "is all I figger on using. I'd hate to cause the county a lot of expense, Tracy, when you're treatin' me so wide and handsome."
"You want to move into the office here while I'm gone?"
"Nope, thanks. I'll just lock her up; I expect to be plumb busy for a few days. Now what say to you and me going after that bad guy? I reckon we'll find him down to Mike's Place. Boys," and he turned to the ex-deputies, "Sheriff Tracy has discovered that there's a feller here badly wanted for a holdup and murder—and he alms to light out with him right off. That is, providin' we gather him in without any gunplay, which we hope to do. You might spread the news, so folks won't think it funny that Tracy is out o' town."
"What about that killin' up on the north road?" asked somebody. "Matt Brady?"
Fisher looked at the speaker.
"Oh, him?" he asked in surprise. "Why, I done that myself. No objections?"
"Gosh, no!" was the response, hastily rendered.
Sam Fisher smiled grimly as he left the office with Tracy at his elbow.
"Any of the Running Dog outfit in town?" he asked when they were crossing the street.
"Not that I know of," said Tracy, jingling the handcuffs in his pocket. "But if I was you, Fisher, I'd sort of keep my eye skinned for Buck."
"Thanks." Fisher chuckled. "That's the best little thing to do, Tracy. Well, here goes for the big show! Bet you a dollar we don't even have a rumpus."
He pushed open the swinging doors of Mike's Place.