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Nick Ryan tossed aside the magazine he’d been reading by the dingy light of a bulb overhead. But he didn’t get up from the cot, as Sheriff Capehart came along the shadowy corridor that led back to the cellblock. Nick was a slim, dark young man with sly features. He was openly contemptuous of everybody in his hometown of Piney Point.
Sheriff Capehart, a heavy, middle-aged man with phlegmatic grey eyes, came up close to the bars and stood looking at Nick.
Grinning slyly, Nick asked, “You come to turn me loose, sheriff?”
“No, I didn’t,” grunted the sheriff. “I came to ask if you want to confess killin’ my brother Sam before I go to bed.”
“Surely you don’t think I’d kill anybody!”
“I sure do! You hid in Sam’s hardware and jewelry store until after he’d closed and was working on his books. You made him open his safe, cleaned out from it all the watches and rings and money and suchlike, then you killed him. You killed him, because he knew who you were.”
Nick looked grieved. “Sheriff, you make me feel bad. Here I am, a hometown boy who went off to the big city and made good. Then, when I come back to visit my poor old father, you throw me in the clink and accuse me of murder. Why, you knew me when I was a kid—”
“That’s just it—a thievin’, window breaking alley rat! And I’ve heard a lot of worse things about you since you went off to Pittsfield. Mixed up with Sledge Mangrum’s bunch up there, ain’t you? And you didn’t come home on a visit— you come to rob somebody!”
“What makes you think I killed Sam Capehart?”
“Because you’d been hangin’ about his store for the last couple of days. You were seen to go into the store just a little while before he closed the day he was killed.”
“I went out again by the back door. I could prove that by your brother Sam, if he wasn’t dead.” There was open mockery in Nick’s laugh. “Anyway, I’ve got an air-tight alibi. The night Sam Capehart was killed and robbed, I was at home all night. That’s a pretty hot alibi, ain’t it? My own father’s word?”
The sheriff growled, “Tebe Ryan’s a lazy, booze-swillin’ thief and always was! He’d sooner lie than tell the truth.” /But it’d carry weight in court. Maybe I killed Sam Capehart. Sheriff, but you’ve got no proof and you know it. That lawyer I brought down from Pittsfield is pretty slick. He says that if you don’t produce some evidence, you can’t hold me any longer than tomorrow.”
The sheriff sighed. “Looks like he’s right. I know you killed poor Sam, but I can’t prove it. Reckon I’ll—”
“You’ll stay still, if you want to live!” a cold voice said.
Sheriff Capehart turned and looked surprisedly at the two men who had stepped from the shadowy corridor behind him. One was chunky and dark, the other tall, with pale eyes and a hooked nose. They had wicked-looking automatics in their hands.
The sheriff said belligerently, “What’s this? What’re you two doin’ here? Don’t you know I’m the sheriff?”
“Sure, we know it,” snapped the tall man. He shoved the sheriff back into the corridor. “Get up front, Fatty!”
Nick Ryan got up from the cot. He could see the two shoving Sheriff Capehart along the corridor. He heard the sheriff protest shrilly, “Hold on here! I’m the law—you can’t—” He saw the automatic in the tall man’s hand rise and fall, saw the sheriff wilt down to the floor and lie there still.
The two came back to the cellblock. The tall man said, “Get the keys, Blackie.”
The dark man took a ring holding several keys from a nail on the wall. He opened Nick’s cell door.
“All right, Nick,” the pale-eyed man said coldly. “Get your hat.”
Nick was puzzled. He didn’t know these two. He backed to the cot and sat down.
“I’ll sit this one out,” he said. “That dumb sheriff’s got nothin’ on me. I’ve got a hot alibi. I’d be a sap to break out of here, when I’ll be out legally in twenty-four hours anyway. I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
“That’s what you think, smart aleck!” The tall man slapped Nick, hard, caught him by the shoulder and flung him toward the cell door. “Step out, fast!”
Nick didn’t argue any more. He didn’t know yet what cooked, but he knew that these two weren’t here as friends, as he had at first thought. The men with the guns were close behind him as he went along the corridor, stepped over the sheriff’s still form, went through the sheriff’s office at the front of the one-story brick building and onto the street. The street was deserted, for it was after midnight and only dimly lighted.
A dark sedan was drawn up at the curb half a block away. Blackie slid under the wheel, the tall man got in the back seat with Nick. The automatic was still in his hand. Blackie started the engine.
“Which way, Jake?” he asked.
“Straight for Pittsfield,” Jake said. “We’re safe.”
The sedan moved out of town and at a moderate speed northward along the highway. Nobody spoke for a couple of miles.
Then Nick said angrily, “Would you mind telling me what the hell this is all about?”
“Sledge wants to see you,” Jake said briefly. “He heard you were in that hick jail. He sent us to get you.”
“Sledge Mangrum? What’s he want to see me about?”
“You know what about. It was a crazy thing, Nick, killing Sledge’s kid brother Joe.”
“Somebody’s crazy, all right! But if somebody killed Joe Mangrum, it wasn’t me.
“Sledge thinks different. He knows you and Joe had some trouble over a chick, knows you threatened to kill the kid. So when Joe was found in a back room of Marty’s place with a blade in his gullet—with Marty swearing you and Joe had come in together—Sledge started looking for you. It gave me the creeps, hearing some of the things Sledge swore he’d do to yon.”
Nick was quiet a moment, feeling cold and leaden in his stomach. He wasn’t really on the inside of Sledge Mangrum’s gang, only on the fringe, because Sledge had turned thumbs down on him. He knew little about Big Sledge, but he’d heard things that made his insides curl up, about what Sledge did to those he didn’t like. He knew Sledge’s kid brother Joe, a wicked, strutting little rat. They’d fought over a girl one night.
He’d heard that Sledge Mangrum loved only one thing on earth—that vicious, swaggering kid brother of his.
“Look,” Nick said. “When did Joe get it?”
“Last Monday night, about midnight.”
“Then I can prove I didn’t do it. I was here, in Piney Point, last Monday midnight!”
“Maybe. In a jail cell?”
“No, that wasn’t till Tuesday. I was—” Nick stopped. At midnight Monday he had been in Sam Capehart’s store. It was just about then that he’d killed a man.
The tires whined on the pavement. The pines on each side of the highway were dark and still.
Blackie said over his shoulder, “Remember what Sledge done to Mack Parker the time Mack double-crossed him? Mack’s mind never was right after that. They had to put him away.”
Nick blurted, “Damn it, didn’t I say I didn’t kill Joe?”
“Tell that to Sledge,” Jake murmured. “But it’ll take more than just your word, or your old man’s, to make him believe it.”
“What if I could prove I was two hundred miles from Pittsfield at midnight Monday?”
“That’d be fine for you, but I don’t think you can.”
“Sure, I can,” Nick said eagerly. “You know why I was in the can?”
“We know all about it. So what?”
“You know what time Sam Capehart was killed and robbed?”
“About midnight, they claim, on Monday—”
“It was me that pulled that job! I couldn’t have done that, and killed Joe Mangrum in Pittsfield at the same time, could I?”
Blackie laughed. “No soap, Wick. We know that dumb sheriff just picked you up on suspicion. You didn’t croak old Capehart.”
“I did, I tell you! If I showed you the loot—the watches and rings and stuff—that would prove it, wouldn’t it?”
Jake said slowly, “Nick, you’re a sneaky, blood-thirsty little rat. But you show me that and I’ll tell Sledge you didn’t kill Joe.”
Nick took a deep breath of relief. “A couple of miles ahead a gravel road turns off to the left into the woods. Follow it, and I’ll show you where the stuff is.”
Five minutes later the sedan was bumping along a crooked, forest-hemmed side road. At a word from Nick, Blackie stopped the car at a narrow concrete bridge. Nick got out, followed by Jake with the gun, and went down into the dry creek bed.
The black satchel was cunningly hidden.
Back on the road, in the glare from the car lights, Jake opened the satchel. It was crammed with glittering jewelry and money. Some of the price tags carried the name of Sam Capehart.
“That satisfy you?” Nick asked.
“It sure does,” Jake said. But he didn’t put away his gun.
The headlights of a car approached swiftly along the old gravel road. The car stopped and a heavy figure got out.
“All right, boys?” Sheriff Capehart asked.
“Okay, sheriff,” Jake said. “He’s your meat, well-done!”
That coldness was in Nick Ryan’s stomach again. He knew suddenly that he’d been a sucker. He said furiously, “You double-crossin’ snakes! Joe Mangrum’s not dead! You two don’t belong to Sledge Mangrum’s gang!”
“Did they tell you that?” The sheriff snapped a pair of handcuffs on Nick’s wrists. “Why, they’re just a couple of boys from over at Rockport that I got to help me. They wouldn’t hurt a grasshopper. It was a real hot alibi you had to prove you never killed my brother Sam, Nick. But not hot as the chair you’ll soon be settin’ in!”
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