Monday, July 18, 2005

 

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVII

A BROKEN-BLADED KNIFE

FOR an instant, so great was the surprise of every one at the sheriff's dramatic accusation, none of the officer's hearers was capable of speech. Then Crimins swore savagely under his breath, and June gasped. Craig half rose to his feet, but sank down again when the gun in the hands of the deputy sheriff swung to cover him.
“What was that?’ Robbins demanded, still hoarse. “Would yuh mind repeatin' what yuh just said, sheriff?”
Kelson took a step nearer, his gun muzzle lowering a trifle, but continuing to point in the direction of the cowboy.
“I said, ‘Yo're under arrest for the robbery of the Del Rio National Bank and the murder of John Fisher, the cashier!'
“Yo're crazy!” declared Robbins emphatically. “I haven't been off the ranch for three or four days.”
Kelson sneered.
“It's no use tryin' to alibi yoreself. We've got the goods on you, and there's no way you can get out of it. Yuh thought yuh could get away with it, didn't yuh? But yuh didn't reckon on the sheriff's office bein' smart enough to see through yore scheme, and that's where yuh made yore mistake.”
“When did this robbery take place?’ Crimins asked quickly. “Did the robber clean it out? All the money I've got was in that bank.”
Kelson eyed him pityingly.
“If that's the case, I'm sorry for you, Crimins. Everythin' but some unnegotiable securities was taken. Twenty-three thousand dollars in gold and currency, a lot of bonds and so forth were missin' when Paul Miner, the president of the bank, opened up this mornin'. Near as we can judge, the robbery happened between midnight and two o'clock.”
“Yuh say Fisher was killed?’
“Yeah. Deader'n a doornail. He'd been shot, and then roped in a chair. Must have bled to death, by the looks of the place. He was workin' late, so Miner said, makin' up the pay roll for the Three Aces Mine. The back door of the bank had been pried open, and the robber got in that way. Likely Fisher put up a fight and the bandit shot him, woundin' him but not killin' him outright.”
Crimins pondered seriously.
“How did yuh know only one man did the job?’ “Everythin' points to it, that's how. There's only
the tracks of one horse outside the door, for one thing. We followed those tracks out of town, but lost them for a while in some hard ground. Then we managed to pick them up again and we found they pointed right toward the C Bar before they petered out again.”
“What makes yuh think it was Robbins who robbed the bank and killed Fisher?’ queried Craig. “ Couldn't it have been some one else?’
“Yeah, it could have been,” agreed the sheriff, “only it wasn't. Don't worry, we've got Robbins clinched on this deal. He don't deny it, yuh notice,
and he knows he can't prove an alibi.”
• Craig glanced at the silent cowboy inquiringly.
“How about that, Bill? Got anythin' to say for yoreself? Seems to me you were night herdin' last night, weren't you?’
Robbins nodded.
“I was, y'betcha. I was on watch from ten o'clock until four this mornin'. All that time I wasn't out of the saddle once. I rode all over the range, from the ranch to the mountains and from one side of the valley to the other.”
“What was yore idea in doin' that?’ asked KeIson. “ Don't sound reasonable that a puncher should do all that ridin' at night. Most cowpokes on night herdin' would find a rock to lean up against and go to sleep.”
“We've been havin' a little trouble with rustlers lately,” Robbins answered patiently. “So one or the other of us have been ridin' out at night kinda keepin' a weather ~ye open for any one tryin' to annex C Bar cattle. If we catch anybody we plan to make it mighty unhealthy for them, but so far we've found nothin' but more cattle missin'”
Kelson laughed raucously, unbelief mirrored on his features.
“What do yuh think yo're doin', tellin' a bedtime story? Yore story is about as thin as water to me. George,” to his deputy, “we ain't got no more time to waste on him. If you've got yore bracelets with yuh, put them on him and let's be goin' back to Del Rio.”
The deputy, a short, unshaven fellow, holstered his revolver and advanced to the cowboy, feeling in a hip pocket. His handcuffs had become caught, however, and after an unsuccessful jerk he turned his head to see what was holding them. In that moment Robbins moved.
His right fist, traveling scarcely a foot, crashed against the unprotected jaw of the deputy with all the resistless force of a mule kick. George went down with surprising suddenness, sprawling full length against Keison's legs. The latter, thrown off balance by the impact, fell forward over the prostrate deputy, his gun exploding harmlessly into the floor.
Without a moment's hesitation, Robbins sprang over the two officers and disappeared through the door into the darkness of the night. Cursing vehemently, Kelson got up and ran after him, but somehow his feet became entangled with those of Loco Lang, who had stepped toward the door to peer out, and they crashed to the floor together.
“Yuh crazy, half-witted son of a sidewinder!” snarled the sheriff, picking himself up again. “Get out of my way! Don't yuh know it's a crime to obstruct law and order?
“George, dern yuh, get up and get after that robber? Do yuh want him to get plumb away? Move, can't yuh?’
Grumbling incoherently, the deputy heaved himself to his feet, rubbed vigorously a hip that had struck the floor violently, and started toward the door. Before he reached it, the darkness outside was shattered by the thundering report of a revolver. A man yelled stridently, evidently in pain and terror. Almost immediately came two more shots, close together, then four as if several guns had gone into action at once.
Crimins leaped toward the door, followed instantly by Pete Craig. Kelson and his deputy seemed incapable of movement, so astounded were they. It was apparent that they had come alone to the C Bar, and that any one should be waiting outside was more than they could understand. They were not slow in following the lead of Crimins and Craig, however, and plunged after them into the night.
June ‘was left alone with Loco, her heart throbbing madly in suspense. What was going on out there in the blackness? What dangers had Robbins encountered when he had so abruptly knocked down the sheriff and vanished through the kitchen door? The shooting had ceased as suddenly as it had be-gun, but there was no telling what damage had been done during the short period the crashing reports had sounded.
She was not kept longer in doubt. Footsteps came to her, and the panting of men. The door was flung savagely open, and into the room was thrust the tall, black-clad figure of Bill Robbins. Sheriff Kelson and George, the deputy, were behind him, guns trained on the cowboy's back, but the girl had no eyes for them.
Robbins' hat was gone. His face was red-smeared, and his shirt was both dirty and torn, as if he had engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight with somebody. His left arm hung limp, and through the upper part, near the shoulder, was a gory bullet hole. June stared wild-eyed at the wound, fascinated.
“Bill, what—what happened?’ she cried, rising swiftly and running to him. “ You're—you're wounded!”
Robbins smiled wanly at her and seated himself at the table. Kelson watched him narrowly, but made no move to prevent him resting himself.
“It's nothin',” he replied. “Only a hole through the flesh. Painful, but not serious.
“How did it happen? Do you know who did it?”
Robbins shook his head.
“No. Kelson had some one waiting in case I made a break, I guess. He got me in the arm the minute I stepped out of the door. I shot back, and he screamed so I reckon I hit him. Then some one else opened up on me, but I shifted position and they missed me. It certainly isn't their fault I'm still alive and walkin' around. They tried hard enough to get me.
June faced Kelson with flashing, scornful eyes.
“Sheriff, I think that's about the most cowardly thing a man can do!” she burst out. “I see it all, and don't you forget it! It was all a. frame-up to get Bill out of the way, and I haven't a doubt but that you're in on the game! Oh, you coward, you coward!”
Kelson fidgeted aimlessly with his hat before he spoke.
“Now see here, Miss June!” he protested volubly. “It ain't so! I didn't neither have anybody waitin' out there for Robbins! Me and George came here to take him to jail, peaceablelike, same as we do any other man we think is guilty of a crime. We didn't even know anybody else was around. Honest, that's a fact. Ain't it, George? Say somethin', dang it!”
“Uh-huh—yeah, that's right,” seconded the deputy hesitantly. “We come alone, sure we did.”
The girl looked doubtfully from one to the other.
“I don't know whether to believe you or not. There have been so many mysterious things happening around here lately that sometimes one almost doubts oneself. Did you catch whoever was doing the shooting?”
“No, ma'am, we didn't even see them. When we got out there the shootin' was over. We was runnin' down toward the corral when Robbins bumps into me in the dark and me and George jumps onto him and takes his gun away. Yore dad and that other gent, Craig I guess his name is, are lookin' for the parties now.”
“Well, are you still intent on taking Bill to jail? Are you positive he is the bandit you are looking for?”
Kelson nodded with supreme conviction.
“I am, yuh betcha. Why? Because I found this where John Fisher was killed, in the bank. Look.”
He drew forth from his pocket a broken-bladed, pearl-handled jackknife and handed it to her. June took it and looked it over curiously, wondering what it could possibly have to do with the bank robbery and the murder of the cashier. She turned it over idly, and her heart sank as she understood. For set the pearl of the handle were the initials in gold, “W. R.”
“Ever see it before?’ questioned Kelson eagerly.
The opportune return of Crimins and Craig saved June from having to make an immediate answer. Robbins got up and came forward.
“Didn't see hide nor hair of anybody,” reported Crimins. “Craig and I hunted all around, but we couldn't find anybody a-tall. What's goin' on here? Bill, yo're hurt!”
“It's not such a much, boss,” smiled Robbins. “There's more important things now than wounds, anyhow.”
“Yeah,” put in Kelson. “Miss June, how about that knife? Have you ever seen it before?’
June hesitated. In her mind was the thought that possibly Robbins was guilty, yet she could not force herself to believe that such was the case. In fact, when she gazed into his frank, earnest eyes all doubts left her.
“Yes, I've seen it,” she replied. “Bill had it the other day skinning a bear we killed.”
[End of chapter]
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