Sunday, July 17, 2005

 

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XVIII

THE ACCUSING FINGER

KELSON grinned triumphantly. “Robbins, do you admit this is yore knife? Of course, they're yore initials, but for form's sake I'd like to have yuh affirm or deny that the knife is yores.”
It was not necessary for the puncher to inspect the article closely to recognize it as his own. He had seen it too often, used it too many times, not to know it.
“Yeah, it's mine. Why?’
“Because that there knife was found on the floor beside John Fisher, that's why. It had been used to cut a piece off a lariat. Guess that clinches you, don't it?”
Robbins grinned amusedly.
“Don't see why it should, sheriff. I haven't seen that knife since the day Miss June and I had the fight with the grizzly. I must have left it beside the carcass, or else lost it on the way home. Anybody could have found it. It's clear to me that the man who robbed the bank and killed the cashier found my knife and left it there to incriminate me.”
There was no mistaking the sheriff's short laugh for one of intense scorn and disbelief.
“And I suppose yuh expect me to believe that, do yuh? Well, you've got another think comin'. I wasn't born yesterday. The truth of the matter is that you was in such a hurry to get away from the bank that yuh laid down yore knife and forgot it. George, let's quit foolin' away our time and take Robbins to jail. If he had an alibi it would be different, but no cock-and-bull story goes with me. Come on.”
June stepped hastily between the officers and Robbins.
“Just a minute, Mr. Kelson,” she said quietly. “I see that I'll have to tell the truth in order to save an innocent man.
The sheriff stared helplessly at her, eyes bulging. “Huh! What do yuh mean, Miss June?” The girl looked steadily at the toe of her shoe, studiously avoiding Robbins' gaze.
“Why—I—I was with Bill last night until long past midnight,” she said in a low voice. “He couldn't have been the bandit, don't you see.”
Robbins was so surprised that for a moment he stood rooted to the spot. June's statement had been totally unexpected, so much so that it came as a shock.
“Don't you believe her, Kelson!” he cried. “She's only tryin' to alibi me so I won't have to go to jail. I've told yuh the truth. I was ridin' the range last night all alone!”
“Don't listen to him, sheriff,” June said quietly, still avoiding the cowboy's eyes. “He's merely trying to save me embarrassment. We were together from ten until long past midnight, as I said. We rode around the range together, and he knows it!”
The sheriff looked from one to the other hesitantly, not knowing what to believe.
“You were out together all that ti—er, I mean—well, dang it, yuh mean you were out on the range together around midnight?” he floundered.
The girl nodded.
“Why didn't yuh tell me this before?”
“I hoped it wouldn't be necessary, of course.”
Kelson grinned foolishly.
“Yuh hoped it wouldn't be—oh, yeah. Well, gosh, that puts a different light on the matter. Sorta makes it a white horse of another color.”
“Don't believe her, Kelson!” Robbins blurted
“Bill, do you realize what you're saying? You're intimating that I'm lying.”
Crimins strode forward heavily. He saw through his daughter's plan, saw, too, that it was the only way to keep Robbins a free man. The C Bar was sorely in need of the cowboy's resourcefulness and initiative, and to lose him now would be a hard blow indeed. Therefore the rancher was quick to support June's stand.
“Listen here, Bill,” he growled, shaking a stubby finger under Robbins' nose, “there ain't no man can insinuate my girl's a liar! I don't care who it is! If June says a thing is so, why it is!”
“But—” Robbins began despairingly, determined not to let June sacrifice her good name to save him.
Crimins cut him short. “There ain't no buts about it! Yuh can't call my girl a liar and get away with it! I know her, and I'm tellin' yuh that when she says a thing is so, why it is so! That's all there is to it!”
Robbins was beaten, and he knew it. He glanced appealingly at June, entreating her silently to rescind her statements, but she had made her decision. He saw that in her eyes, and he shrugged his shoulders resignedly.
The sheriff sighed wearily.
“There goes our case all shot to pieces, George. Dang it, that’s just my luck. Get all set to pull down a big reward and make myself famous as the man who captured a notorious killer and bandit, and then somethin' comes along to shoot my hopes fuller of holes than a Swiss cheese.
“But say, how about yore knife, Robbins? How do yuh explain that?”
“Like I told you. I lost it somewhere, and the bandit must have found it. That's the only way I can explain it.”
“I know he didn't have that knife yesterday,” said June, trying to keep from smiling as Robbins looked at her. “I asked him for it to whittle a stick, and he said then he'd lost it.”
Kelson sighed again.
“Let's me and you rustle our hocks back to town, George. I can see right now that we'd have one sweet time provin' there's a nose on yore face around here, and you know yoreself that you've got a nose bigger'n a whisky keg.”
“I ain't neither!” denied the deputy heatedly. “My nose is small, and you know it! Talk about noses, yores ain't no shrinkin' violet, lemme tell yuh that! Looks somethin' like a steamboat comin' down river, if yuh asks me.”
“Now, now, let's not talk about my nose,” Kelson advised, leading the way out of the door. “Yores was the one we were discussin'. Ain't yuh got no sense of decency, a-tall, George, changin' the subject that way? Yuh oughta be ashamed of yoreself, seems to me.”
They passed on out into the night, still arguing, and their voices died away gradually as they mounted and headed for town.
“That sure is a pair for yuh,” laughed Crimins. “Kelson ain't got the brains to track an elephant, and George Burns is dead from the neck both ways. He lacks about three staves of bein' round, I guess. Why them two ever were allowed to hold down the sheriff's office beats me. I could hang my coat on the back of the sheriff's chair, and it'd do as much good as he's done.”
“Don't you think you underestimate him, daddy?” June spoke up. “He seems to be trying hard to fill his office, though at times one wonders whether he's honest or not.”
Crimins shrugged his shoulders.
“Darned if I know. Sometimes I think he's all right, and then again I'm sure he's hand in glove with the crooks in this county.”
Robbins drew June aside and gazed at her accusingly.
“What did you tell the sheriff you were with me last night for?” he asked. “You knew that wasn't so. And about the knife. I don't remember you ever askin' me for it.”
She laughed merrily, but sobered instantly as she caught the seriousness of his face.
“Why, don't you see?” she questioned earnestly. “Whoever killed Fisher planned that you would be accused of the crime. It was deliberate intent to get rid of you.”
“But why should you imperil yore good name by sayin' what you did? Why didn't you let them take me?”
“Because you're one of the mainstays of the C Bar now, Bill. With you gone, I'm afraid dad wouldn't hold out much longer. Whoever is back of all our trouble knows it. too, and that's why you're a target not only for bullets, but accusations of robbery and murder as well.
“I saw that at once, even though the evidence was against you. So I told the sheriff what I did. If I hadn't, he'd have taken you to jail and our enemies would have won another trick in the game. Don't you see that?”
The puncher thought seriously.
“Yes, I can see it. Only, I don't want you talked about. If people hear you were out alone with me at that time of night there's no tellin' what they'll say.
She snapped her fingers contemptuously.
“Who cares what people say? It's more important to me that Whortle does not take the C Bar away from us than that some scandalmonger should say things we know are not true. I'm not worrying about it, so don't you.
He smiled.
“All right. But if I hear anybody sayin' anythin' against you, there's gonna be more war than this county ever saw before!”
She patted his arm gently, a touch that thrilled him.
“Thank you, Bill. But let's not worry about that now. Who do you suppose really is guilty of the bank robbery?“
He scratched his chin thoughtfully
“If I was a fortune teller maybe I could tell you,” he replied. “Since I'm not, though, I'll have to confess that outside of Whortle and his bunch I haven't the slightest idea who did it. But I know that whoever did has got it in for me, and that's no mistake.”
“I'm inclined to believe it's Whortle,” said Craig, who had overheard the last remark. “I didn't think he was crooked at first, but now he's shown his hand, lightin' into you and June like he did, I wouldn't be a bit surprised but what he's doin' everythin' he can think of to get you out of the way and ruin Crimins.”
The rancher strolled over to the three and nodded his head.
Sounds reasonable, don't it? First he declares war against me, and after that a lot of things happen. Somebody gets ahead of Craig and prevents him sellin' any meat in Morgan City. Three of Whortle's men try to kill Bill in Del Rio. Then the cave gets blown up and Larry gets almost mangled to death. Next, Whortle's gang does its best to bump off Bill and June, or at least I suppose they included June. And now the bank is robbed and the cashier killed, and Bill is blamed.” “If Bill lost his knife where he and June killed the bear, Whortle might have found it durin' the fight, too,” Craig pointed out. “Everythin' seems to point the accusin' finger straight at Mr. Whortle, don't it?”
“It does,” agreed Crimins flatly, “and I feel a cravin comin' on to point somethin' else at him. A gun, that's what, and I want to pull the trigger of that gun!”
Milt Thompson came into the kitchen, cheerily slapping Loco and Craig on the back. June had got water and cloths and was bandaging Robbins' arm.
“Howdy, folks,” he grinned at them. “Fine, large evenin' we're havin', ain't it? What's all the gatherin' for? Havin' an indignation meetin’ or somethin'? If yuh are, I'll feel awful peeved if I'm left out. I'm just in the mood to be indignant over most anythin'.”
They laughed, and Craig told the lanky puncher that Robbins had been accused of the Del Rio bank robbery and the murder of Fisher.
“”Yuh don't say!” he ejaculated, staring wide-eyed at Robbins. “ What's the country comin' to? I thought I heard shots as I rode toward the ranch. What did yuh do, gun the sheriff?”
“Bill thought they were goin' to railroad him so he knocked Kelson's deputy, George Burns, loose from the floor and ran outside. Somebody out there took a crack at him and plugged him in the shoulder.”
“Yeah? Well, for gosh sake! Get him? I mean the ‘somebody'?”
Craig shook his head mournfully.
“Nope. He got plumb away. Don't know who it was. Kelson decided later that Bill wasn't guilty, and went back to town, arguin' with his deputy over which one had the biggest nose.”
Thompson chuckled. “I dunno which one will win out. How much money did yuh get out of the bank, Bill? Are yuh gonna split with us, or are yuh gonna save it for yore old age?”
Robbins thanked June for her administrations to his wounded arm and pulled down his sleeve.
“No, I'm gonna donate it to a home for curious cowboys,” he grinned. “Kelson told us there was twenty-three thousand simoleons in gold and bills missin', besides some bonds and things.”
Thompson whistled in astonishment.
The conversation turned to more serious things. Crimins was worried over the activities of the rustlers, and said so.
“Well, they haven't done anythin' since we've taken to ridin' range at night,” declared Craig. “Maybe we've got them on the run for a while. But of course that don't bring back the stock you've already lost.”
“No, it don't. If we could only catch them! Bill, suppose you and Pete go into town in the mornin’ and look over the bank robbery, and at the same time see if any cattle have been shipped. I don't believe the rustlers would dare ship out from Del Rio, but they're fool enough to do anythin'. Find out what “Yuh can. Maybe you can get some clew to the real bandit and at the same time put the deadwood on the rustlers. If Whortle or his gang are implicated in both, it'll be a lot easier to squelch them in the end. Whatever happens, I'm goin' to have a showdown with Whortle before very long!”
[End of chapter]
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