3322410The Sheriff of Pecos — Chapter 9H. Bedford-Jones



MIKE'S PLACE was lighted into the semblance of day by two huge acetylene lamps in the center of the ceiling.

As the foremost of the crowd entered the storeroom there came to the others a howl of baffled rage. The entire rear of the long room was a surging mass of men, all fighting to be first. The front of the place was quite deserted, except for the figure of Mike, who stood behind the bar, hand still on his shotgun.

About the rear doorway centered a wild struggle. Nobody knew just what was taking place until Chuck Hansom leaped to a chair and dominated the mob.

"He's gone!" roared the cowboy with the gay beaded vest. "Gone! Somebody's cut him loose. Got out the windy——"

"C'rect the first shot, Chuck," drawled a quiet voice from the front.

Every man there turned, to behold Steve Arnold in the doorway, a gun in each hand. To one side of the swinging doors, thumbs in his vest, was negligently posed Sam Fisher.

"I've come for you, Mike," he said in the moment of dead silence. "Chuck, you and your friends will be attended to by Mr. Arnold, here, so be careful. Mike, go for your gun——"

Mike had already gone for it, merely switching around the shotgun atop the bar. It burst into a shattering, deafening roar that drowned the words of Sam Fisher. Under the roar came the whiplike crack of a revolver.

There was a crash and crackle of falling glass; the double load of buckshot took out the front window with admirable unanimity. Silence fell, dread and ominous. Galway Mike had fallen over his bar, and lay there motionless. Sam Fisher jerked his gun into its holster again, his face hard and flinty, his eyes burning.

"Sorry about this, boys," he said, "but it's time that Mr. Buck and his friends were put out of business."

"Who killed Cervantes?" yelled somebody. Sam Fisher held up his hand.

"I'll tell you," he said, and there was silence. "Three men hid in the brush and shot Cervantes, ambushed him, murdered him without a chance. Two of those men did the shooting. The third man was Chuck Hansom, yonder. One of the actual murderers is dead. The other was Templeton Buck—and I'm going to send him to the pen for it."

"You lie!" cried the shrill voice of Chuck Hansom. "You lie! You done it yourself——"

"You devil, I seen the whole thing!" shouted Steve Arnold, breaking loose. "I seen it all——"

Chuck Hansom flung up his gun. Arnold shot him before the hammer fell.

Two shots echoed—Fisher fired twice at the ceiling, blew out the lights, and was gone through the doorway, dragging the raging Arnold with him. Behind them the crowd began to mill in wild confusion, not realizing what had happened, engulfed in darkness, fearing more shots from the doorway.

"Confound you!" exclaimed Sam Fisher as he dragged his companion along. "What'd you drop him for? We'd have had a confession out of him later."

"I seen red," panted Steve. "I jest couldn't help it, thinkin' of the way they'd downed Miguel. He was one o' the three."

"Duck in back o' the hotel, Steve; hurry up! We got to make those horses; there's going to be a string of hornets on our trail in a hurry."

Five minutes later the two had ridden out of town. Behind them the lights and confusion died down, but both knew that parties of riders would be on their trail ere long. For a space they pushed their horses in silence, then Fisher reined in.

"Long trail ahead, Steve; no use overdoin' it," he said. "I got to thank you for snaking me out of that storeroom. How'd you find out?"

"Heard 'em talk in the front." Arnold drew in at his stirrup. "Listen! Why in thunder didn't you tell me you was Sam Fisher?"

"I was aiming to keep it dark a while, Steve," returned the other apologetically, "only things got to moving too lively and I had to make the play. Did you see Stella?"

"Yep! And say! I ain't had a chance to tell you yet; things have busted loose aplenty! Buck must ha' got Jake Harper."

"What!" The word broke from Fisher like an explosion. "What? How come?"

"I ain't certain." Steve became calmer as he spoke. "Right after I got back to the Lazy S, Buck and this feller Chuck rode home, savvy? I aimed to come right to town, only Stella was badly broken up about Miguel, so I had to stick around a while. Finally I had a chance to tell her the rights of the whole business, so she up and tells me that you was Sam Fisher himself. It took us quite a spell gettin' straightened out. Then the poor ol' señora took to throwin' fits and I had to give Stella a hand with her, which ate up considerable time.

"Well, I was gettin' saddled up, when in rode one of our veterans from the Circle Bar, seekin' Jake. Seems like Jake had started for the Shumway place early this mornin' alone. Must ha' clear dropped out o' sight. Stella told me to ride in and git you, which I done. That's all we know."

Sam Fisher studied over this information for a time, gravely perturbed.

"Steve, we're in for it, up to our necks!" he said at last. "Buck is makin' a great play for the Shumway place and Stella; at least, he started that way.

"He knows nothing of what's happened in town. He thinks that I'm in jail, safe to be put away for the murder of Cervantes. Cervantes is dead and out of his way. The only other obstacle in his path was Jake Harper, and he must have arranged to handle the old man. If he has, by Heaven, I'll get him! No—I won't get him. I'll still send him over the road."

"A bullet would simplify things a heap," and Arnold sighed.

"No, Steve." Fisher's voice was grave, heavy, stern. "Buck is the prime mover behind all the deviltry up here. It was Buck who sent Frank Shumway to the pen—and that fellow Murphy, or Pincher Brady, framed the deal from the capital. I found a letter in Murphy's pocket from Buck referring to it—clear enough evidence to free Shumway."

"Glory be!" ejaculated Arnold with a sudden yell of delight. "Is that the truth?"

"It's the truth. That letter is locked in the sheriff's desk—and nobody knows about it. Now, Murphy is safe out of the way, and we'll get Frank loose from the pen in no time. But Buck—give him a quick, hot bullet? Not much! That devil is going behind the bars for life, if I can send him!"

"I'm right sorry about Chuck Hansom, Red," Steve said slowly.

"Don't worry. I don't believe Chuck would have squealed, anyhow. Now, I have to be at the Shumway place to-morrow to handle that coroner's jury; so do you with your evidence. If we're going to clean up this county, we have to do one thing at a time. This affair to-night has mussed up everything pretty badly. If that gang from town is allowed to come after us, it means a lot of shooting and killing—which I want to avoid if possible. Chuck and Mike deserved what they got, but we can't shoot up a lot of hysterical fools who think they're chasing a murderer. With Buck and his gang it's different. Where Buck made his mistake was in murdering Cervantes; that murder is going to cost a lot of blood."

"What about Jake Harper?" exclaimed Steve suddenly.

"I'm thinkin' about Jake right now—but if he's dead I can't help him. If he ain't, he's all right. That coroner will be out to-morrow morning with his jury; so will the preacher. Until noon to-morrow, I'm tied up. And we've got to stop that mob. Here, Steve, let's tie the hosses and have a smoke."

Fisher dismounted abruptly and began to lead his horse off the road. Arnold reined in and stared at the darkness.

"My gosh, have you gone crazy or what, feller? We got no time to smoke——"

"All the time in the world, cowboy!" came the whimsical, laughing response. "Get down and roll me one, will you? Done lost my makin's in the confusion back yonder."

With a sigh of resignation to what he considered utter folly, Steve dismounted and joined his friend. Fisher said nothing until a cigarette was rolled and lighted; then:

"Steve, I've been thinking about those boys who are behind us. Who's leading them? Nobody. They'll cool off mighty quick after leaving town. They ain't sure just what has happened or who I am. When they strike trouble in the darkness they'll be all confused and imagining things. Now, all we got to do is like this——"

He spoke for a moment, low-voiced.

The crowd of men who rode out from town on the north road was headed by the two Running Dog riders, who now had Chuck Hansom to avenge. Only their savage spurrings had availed to rouse the crowd, in fact; nobody was quite certain whether Miguel Cervantes had been murdered by Fisher or by Templeton Buck. The fall of Galway Mike and Chuck Hansom had considerably cooled the enthusiasm of the mob, and by this time many tales of Sam Fisher were being circulated.

Thus, by the time the crowd of riders came toward the crossroads, not a few of them had trailed off back to' town. Under the starlight the men rode in a clump at a steady jog. Hereabouts the road was edged by a dense thicket of manzanita. From this thicket came a drawling voice that caused every rein to jerk sharply at the bit.

"That's far enough, boys; halt! You fellers from the Circle Bar—got the front ones covered? We'll attend to the rear."

"We got 'em, sheriff," came a deep bass voice.

"Leave 'em to us!" said a sharp falsetto. Steve Arnold laughed from somewhere.

"Sure, Fisher; sure! Go ahead with your palaver."

The crowd halted as one man. Their imaginations painted a dozen voices from the clumps of brush. They saw themselves trapped, surrounded. Men cursed and drew rein.

"I want a little talk, boys," said the invisible sheriff of Pecos. "We don't aim to have any more bloodshed than we got to, and you fellers are honest enough in your convictions. Willing to listen a minute?"

"Sure," said a nervous voice from the crowd.

"That's sensible." Fisher's tone was grave, steady, holding them spellbound. "I'll be at the Lazy S to-morrow to meet the coroner and the preacher. This Cervantes murder is going to be handled by the law. You may think I did it; all right. To-morrow the coroner's jury will decide that little matter, and I'm spilling no secret when I say their verdict is going to be hard on Templeton Buck.

"But I don't want a mob of you out there, messing things up and starting trouble. I want to propose a fair and square deal all around. You boys elect a committee of three to accompany the coroner; the rest of you stick around town and wait. If that suits you, go on back home. If it don't, then ride ahead—and take your medicine.

"You two Running Dog men! Come on alone a dozen steps. I want a personal word with you boys, and I'd advise you not to pull for any guns. Come on!"

There was a moment of hesitation. Then the two punchers urged their horses forward. Into the road ahead came the figure of Sam Fisher on foot. Cowed, startled, fearful, the crowd watched to see what would happen.

"If you two boys want to go on to the Running Dog," Fisher said quietly, "you're free to go ahead. But I warn you here and now that your boss is facing trouble. Every man with him will become an accessory. You know me, boys, and you know I mean what I say. I'm giving you fair warning. Buck, it appears, got Jake Harper to-day, and the Circle Bar outfit is behind me to the limit. You know what that means—every man of 'em a sharpshooter, out to kill! The roads are watched; your outfit will be shot down the minute you reach the Running Dog buildings. Ride on if you want to—but you can't come back, boys."

The two riders sat motionless, drinking in his words. Most of those words had reached the crowd. News that Buck had "got" Jake Harper was paralyzing; it meant war to the finish with the Circle Bar. Few in the crowd doubted any longer that it was Buck who had murdered Cervantes. This sheriff of Pecos was too steady, too composed, too certain of his position. He was no murderer.

The two Running Dog men glanced at each other, A word passed between them; they knew full well what it meant if they rode forward. But they were men, unafraid.

"Much obliged, sheriff," said the foremost coolly. "You're sure actin' white. Jest the same, we're workin' for the Runnin' Dawg and we don't aim to lay down on the job."

"All right, boys; I'm sorry." Fisher stood aside. "The road's yours! Let these two boys pass, fellers—and plug the first to follow."

"All right, Sam," came the voice of Arnold.

The two cowboys rode on. Not a man followed them. When they had vanished into the darkness, Fisher stepped up and addressed the crowd.

"Well, gents? Going to break through, or take my advice about sending that committee?"

There was un uneasy laugh from the crowd.

"Guess we'll send the committee, sheriff."

With a surging of turned horses, the crowd headed about and started back for town. Fisher gazed after them until the darkness had swallowed up the mob; then he turned, and found Steve Arnold at his elbow.

"Red, you're sure a wonder!" exclaimed Steve admiringly. "You done it. What next?"

"Riding," replied Fisher. "Hard riding, Steve. You know the country better than I do. You have to go ahead to the Circle Bar and get every last one of Jake Harper's boys out around Buck's place; no fighting, understand, but the Running Dog outfit must be cooped up. Tell 'em to drop any man that rides out."

"Ain't enough of 'em," objected Arnold dubiously.

"Sure there is." Fisher laughed. "Those old fellows are dead shots, Steve; you don't know 'em. They'll circle out around the Running Dog buildings and close up things tighter than a drum. Anyhow, they have to do it. Tell them I'll be over to-morrow, after getting cleaned up at the Lazy S. And tell them to wait, understand? Wait! No foolishness. Then you come ahead to the Lazy S yourself. I'm going there now."

"S'pose Jake's all right?" suggested Arnold. "We ain't certain that Buck got him——"

"The orders stand. If Jake's there, tell him it's a clean-up of the Running Dog."

"Suits me, feller. Adios!"

Arnold climbed into the saddle and was gone.