Good Men and True; and, Hit the Line Hard/Hit the Line Hard/Chapter 6

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Chapter VI

IN the lobby of the Windsor Hotel, as Neighbor Jones came down the stairs, Mr. Octaviano Baca chatted with a little knot of guests. A well-set-up man, tall and strong, with a dark, intelligent face marred and pitted by smallpox but still pleasing, he carried his two score years with the ease of twenty. A gay man, a friendly man, his manner was suave and easy; his dress, place considered, rigorously correct—frock coat, top hat, stick, gloves and gun. The gun was covered, not concealed, by the coat; a chivalrous concession to the law, of which he was so much an ornament

Baca was born to riches, and born to the leadership of the clans. He had brains in his own right; but it was his entire and often proved willingness to waive any advantage and to discuss any moot point with that gun which had won him admiration from the many and forgiveness from the few.

Mr. Jones sank into a quiet chair and read the newspapers. When Mr. Baca, after several false starts, left his friends and went out on the street, Mr. Jones rose and followed him. Mr. Baca turned in at Beck's place, Jones behind him.

Gambling was completely eliminated in Saragossa, but the saloon was in high favor legally; so Beck and Scanlon kept a saloon openly on the ground floor. The poker rooms and the crap, monte, roulette and faro layouts were upstairs. Their existence was a profound secret. No stranger could find the gambling den in Saragossa without asking somebody—anyone would do; unless, indeed, he heard, as he passed, the whir of the ivory ball or the clicking of chips.

Baca, with a nod and a smile for the bar, passed on to join a laughing crowd behind, where two native boys were enjoying a bout with the gloves. Neighbor leaned on the bar. The partners were ill matched. Beck was tall, portly and, except for a conscientious, professional smile, of a severe countenance, blond, florid and flaxen. Scanlon was a slender wisp of a blue-eyed Irishman, dried up, wizened and silent.

"Well, boys," said Neighbor jovially, "I got to go back to the hills and grow a new fleece. Till then, you've lost my game. Sorry."

Beck frowned.

"I hate to see a good fellow go bust. If boys like you had plenty of money I wouldn't never have to work. Well, hurry on back! And come straight here the first night, before you waste any on clothes and saddles and stuff." He lowered his voice for Neighbor's ears. "Say, if you're short, you know—hotel bills, and so on—come round." He jerked a confidential thumb at the house safe.

"Not so bad as that!" laughed Neighbor. "But you want to sharpen your shears up. They pulled a little this time." He passed on to the circle round the boxers.

It was late dusk when, after certain sociable beverages, Mr. Baca bethought himself of supper and started homeward. As he swung along the sidewalk Mr. Jones was close behind. Mr. Baca took the first turn to the left: Mr. Jones took the first turn to the left. Mr. Baca cut across the Park: Mr. Jones also cut across the Park, now almost at his quarry's heels. Mr. Baca wheeled.

"Did you wish to speak with me?"

Neighbor came forward, with an air of relief.

"Why—er—not exactly; but I'd just as lief as not. And it'll be easier for me, now it's getting so dark. You see," he said confidentially, "I'm shadowing you!"

"You're—what?"

"Shadowing you. You seemed to have plenty of money; and I thought," said Neighbor hopefully, "that I might catch you doing something wrong and blackmail you."

"Are you trying to break into jail?" demanded Baca sharply. "You are either intoxicated or mentally deficient. In either case——"

"No, no," said Neighbor soothingly. "I'm not drunk. I really need the money."

"Except that I doubt your sanity," said the outraged lawyer, "I d make you regret this bitterly. Do you know who I am?"

"Sure! You're Tavy Baca—Boss, Prosecuting Attorney and two-gun man. And please don't talk that way about me," Neighbor pleaded in an injured voice. "It makes me feel bad. You wouldn't like it yourself. Don't you know me? I'm not insane. I'm Jones—Neighbor Jones. I've been bucking the poker game at Beck's. But there—you don't know about the poker game, of course—you being Prosecuting Attorney and all."

"See here!" said Baca with a dull, ugly note, "if you're looking for trouble you can get enough for a mess!"

"Not trouble—money!"

"I warn you now," Baca advised. "Do not follow me another step. I'm going."

Jones burst into joyous laughter with so free and unfeigned a note that Baca turned again.

"Come!" cried Jones. "I know what you think I'm going to say—that before I started I left a sealed envelope with a friend and told him if I didn't come back by X o'clock to break the seal and be guided by the contents—that's what you thought I'd say. But you're wrong!" Unhesitatingly he took the few steps separating him from that silent, angry figure in the starlight. "Nobody knows what I'm up to but you and me and God, and you're not right sure. So don't waste any more breath on warnings. I'm warned—and you are!"

Without a word Baca turned at right angles to his homeward course, and led the way swiftly up the dark and steep street to a dark and silent quarter of the Mexican suburb. Toward the street, these old adobe homes presented a blank wall; windows, and all doors save one, fronting on the inclosed patio.

"It's like this," said Jones cheerfully , pressing along the narrow way a yard behind: "I had a nice little bunch of cows—nigh onto two hundred—out in the Monuments. And Bennett, he was projecting about like a roarin' lion out there; and he says: 'Jones, why don't you buy the Bar Nothing brand?' 'No money,' says I. … I say, Baca, don't go so fast! This ain't no Marathon! Lonesome, shivery place, isn't it?"

The silent figure walked still swifter.

"Oh, all right, then! 'I'll lend you the money,' says Bennett, 'an' take a mortgage on both brands.' 'There'll come a drought,' says I, 'and them cattle will lay down and die on me, a lot of em; and I'll find myself in a fix.' And he did, and they did, and I did."

No word from Baca. In the black shadow of the dark unlighted houses he passed swiftly and unhesitatingly. Jones continued:

"Since that I paid him all but eighteen hundred-odd; and now the mortgage comes due pretty sudden, and I stand to lose both brands. … Say, Baca, where're you takin' me to? Some gang of thugs? You can do that all right … but I'll get you first and I'll get you hard, and I'll get you sure! Don't make any mistake!"

Baca gave way to his feelings.

"Oh, bother!" he said, and stopped, irresolute.

"What do you mean anyway, actin' the way you do?" demanded Jones, mopping his forehead. "Wouldn't it sound silly, if I lay a-dyin', for you to threaten me with jail and shootin' and law? They'd sound real futile, wouldn't they? Well, I'm dying right now. I've been a long time at it; but there ain't no cure for what ails me but death. I refer, of course, to the malady of living."

"Damn your eyes!" cried the exasperated King of Saragossa; and he began rapidly to retrace his steps.

"And so," continued the dying man, keeping pace, "I don't never back up. When I start out to blackmail a man he might just as well be nice about it, 'cause I'm going to blackmail him."

Despite himself, Baca had to laugh.

"What are you going to blackmail me for?"

"About two thousand," said Jones.

"But what have I done?"

"Good Lord, man!" said Jones blankly. "I don't know!"

"Come!" said Baca, and clapped his persecutor on the back. "I like a brave man, even if he is a damned fool! Come home to supper with me. I've got a little bachelor establishment beyond the Park, with an old Mexican hombre who can give you the best meal in town."

"You're on! And after supper, then we can fix up that mortgage, can't we? I want to specify that now, so I can eat your salt without prejudice."

 

"And now," said Baca, replenishing his guest's wine-glass, "about the blackmail. Of what particular misdeed do you accuse me?"

"When you asked me to supper," said Jones thoughtfully, "you virtually admitted there was something. You see that? But I don't like to intrude on your private affairs—to butt in, as we say in Harvard."

The host fixed keen eyes on him.

"As we say in Harvard? Yes," he purred. "Go on!"

"It is very distasteful to me. Instead of me naming your crime—or crimes—why could you not beg me to accept a suitable sum as a recognition of my good taste? Just as you please! It's up to you."

"As we say in Harvard!" suggested Baca lightly, lifting his brows with another piercing look.

"As we say in Harvard," agreed Jones. "Any sum, so long as it comes to exactly two thousand. Or, you might use your influence to get Bennett to cancel my mortgage—that would be the same thing. He offered to cancel it once this afternoon—on a condition."

"And that condition?"

"Was not acceptable. It betrayed too plainly the influence—the style, we might say—of the James brothers."

"William and Henry?"

"Jesse and Frank. Man, dear," said Neighbor with sudden, vehement bitterness, "you and me, we're no great shakes. You're goin' to rob young Drake and I'm going to take hush money for it; but this man Bennett is a stinking, rancid, gray-headed old synonym. He is so scared he won't be happy till he gets that boy killed. If I was as big a coward as that, durned if I'd steal at all!"

Baca struck the table sharply; splotches of angry red flamed in his cheeks.

"And I told him I wouldn't stand for it! Damn him! Look here, Jones, you ought to be boiled in oil for your stupefying insolence; but, just to punish him, I'll make Bennett pay your price. It will be like drawing teeth; give me time."