Louis Bassett, when he started to the old Livingstone ranch, now the Wasson place, was carefully turning over in his mind David's participation in the escape of Judson Clark. Certain phases of it were quite clear, provided one accepted the fact that, following a heavy snowfall, an Easterner and a tenderfoot had gone into the mountains alone, under conditions which had caused the posse after Judson Clark to turn back and give him up for dead.
Had Donaldson sent him there, knowing he was a medical man? If he had, would Maggie Donaldson not have said so? She had said “a man outside that she had at first thought was a member of the searching party.” Evidently, then, Donaldson had not prepared her to expect medical assistance.
Take the other angle. Say David Livingstone had not been sent for. Say he knew nothing of the cabin or its occupants until he stumbled on them. He had sold the ranch, distributed his brother's books, and apparently the townspeople at Dry River believed that he had gone back home. Then what had taken him, clearly alone and having certainly given the impression of a departure for the East, into the mountains? To hunt? To hunt what, that he went about it secretly and alone?
Bassett was inclined to the Donaldson theory, finally. John Donaldson would have been wanting a doctor, and not wanting one from Norada. He might have heard of this Eastern medical man at Dry River, have gone to him with his story, even have taken him part of the way. The situation was one that would have a certain appeal. It was possible, anyhow:
But instead of clarifying the situation Bassett's visit at the Wasson place brought forward new elements which fitted neither of the hypotheses in his mind.
To Wasson himself, whom he met on horseback on the road into the ranch, he gave the same explanation he had given to the store-keeper's wife. Wasson was a tall man in chaps and a Stetson, and he was courteously interested.
“Bill and Jake are still here,” he said. “They're probably in for dinner now, and I'll see you get a chance to talk to them. I took them over with the ranch. Property, you say? Well, I hope it's better land than he had here.”
He turned his horse and rode beside the car to the house.
“Comes a little late to do Henry Livingstone much good,” he said. “He's been lying in the Dry River graveyard for about ten years. Not much mourned either. He was about as close-mouthed and uncompanionable as they make them.”
The description Wasson had applied to Henry Livingstone, Bassett himself applied to the two ranch hands later on, during their interview. It could hardly have been called an interview at all, indeed, and after a time Bassett realized that behind their taciturnity was suspicion. They were watching him, undoubtedly; he rather thought, when he looked away, that once or twice they exchanged glances. He was certain, too, that Wasson himself was puzzled.
“Speak up, Jake,” he said once, irritably. “This gentleman has come a long way. It's a matter of some property.”
“What sort of property?” Jake demanded. Jake was the spokesman of the two.
“That's not important,” Bassett observed, easily. “What we want to know is if Henry Livingstone had any family.”
“He had a brother.”
“No one else?”
“Then it's up to me to trail the brother,” Bassett observed. “Either of you remember where he lived?”
“Somewhere in the East.”
“That's a trifle vague,” he commented good-humoredly. “Didn't you boys ever mail any letters for him?”
He was certain again that they exchanged glances, but they continued to present an unbroken front of ignorance. Wasson was divided between irritation and amusement.
“What'd I tell you?” he asked. “Like master like man. I've been here ten years, and I've never got a word about the Livingstones out of either of them.”
“I'm a patient man.” Bassett grinned. “I suppose you'll admit that one of you drove David Livingstone to the train, and that you had a fair idea then of where he was going?”
He looked directly at Jake, but Jake's face was a solid mask. He made no reply whatever.
From that moment on Bassett was certain that David had not been driven away from the ranch at all. What he did not know, and was in no way to find out, was whether the two ranch hands knew that he had gone into the mountains, or why. He surmised back of their taciturnity a small mystery of their own, and perhaps a fear. Possibly David's going was as much a puzzle to them as to him. Conceivably, during the hours together on the range, or during the winter snows, for ten years they had wrangled and argued over a disappearance as mysterious in its way as Judson Clark's.
He gave up at last, having learned certain unimportant facts: that the recluse had led a lonely life; that he had never tried to make the place more than carry itself; that he was a student, and that he had no other peculiarities.
“Did he ever say anything that would lead you to believe that he had any family, outside of his brother and sister? That is, any direct heir?” Bassett asked.
“He never talked about himself,” said Jake. “If that's all, Mr. Wasson, I've got a steer bogged down in the north pasture and I'll be going.”
On the Wassons' invitation he remained to lunch, and when the ranch owner excused himself and rode away after the meal he sat for some time on the verandah, with Mrs. Wasson sewing and his own eyes fixed speculatively on the mountain range, close, bleak and mysterious.
“Strange thing,” he commented. “Here's a man, a book-lover and student, who comes out here, not to make living and be a useful member of the community, but apparently to bury himself alive. I wonder, why.”
“A great many come out here to get away from something, Mr. Bassett.”
“Yes, to start again. But this man never started again. He apparently just quit.”
Mrs. Wasson put down her sewing and looked at him thoughtfully.
“Did the boys tell you anything about the young man who visited Henry Livingstone now and then?”
“No. They were not very communicative.”
“I suppose they wouldn't tell. Yet I don't see, unless—” She stopped, lost in some field of speculation where he could not follow her. “You know, we haven't much excitement here, and when this boy was first seen around the place—he was here mostly in the summer—we decided that he was a relative. I don't know why we considered him mysterious, unless it was because he was hardly ever seen. I don't even know that that was deliberate. For that matter Mr. Livingstone wasn't much more than a name to us.”
“You mean, a son?”
“Nobody knew. He was here only now and then.”
Bassett moved in his chair and looked at her.
“How old do you suppose this boy was?” he asked.
“He was here at different times. When Mr. Livingstone died I suppose he was in his twenties. The thing that makes it seem odd to me is that the men didn't mention him to you.”
“I didn't ask about him, of course.”
She went on with her sewing, apparently intending to drop the matter; but the reporter felt that now and then she was subjecting him to a sharp scrutiny, and that, in some shrewd woman-fashion, she was trying to place him.
“You said it was a matter of some property?”
“But it's rather late, isn't it? Ten years?”
“That's what makes it difficult.”
There was another silence, during which she evidently made her decision.
“I have never said this before, except to Mr. Wasson. But I believe he was here when Henry Livingstone died.”
Her tone was mysterious, and Bassett stared at her.
“You don't think Livingstone was murdered!”
“No. He died of heart failure. There was an autopsy. But he had a bad cut on his head. Of course, he may have fallen—Bill and Jake were away. They'd driven some cattle out on the range. It was two days before he was found, and it would have been longer if Mr. Wasson hadn't ridden out to talk to him about buying. He found him dead in his bed, but there was blood on the floor in the next room. I washed it up myself.”
“Of course,” she added, when Bassett maintained a puzzled silence, “I may be all wrong. He might have fallen in the next room and dragged himself to bed. But he was very neatly covered up.”
“It's your idea, then, that this boy put him into the bed?”
“I don't know. He wasn't seen about the place. He's never been here since. But the posse found a horse with the Livingstone brand, saddled, dead in Dry River Canyon when it was looking for Judson Clark. Of course, that was a month later. The men here, Bill and Jake, claimed it had wandered off, but I've often wondered.”
After a time Bassett got up and took his leave. He was confused and irritated. Here, whether creditably or not, was Dick Livingstone accounted for. There was a story there, probably, but not the story he was after. This unknown had been at the ranch when Henry Livingstone died, had perhaps been indirectly responsible for his death. He had, witness the horse, fled after the thing happened. Later on, then, David Livingstone had taken him into his family. That was all.
Except for that identification of Gregory's, and for the photograph of Judson Clark.... For a moment he wondered if the two, Jud Clark and the unknown, could be the same. But Dry River would have known Clark. That couldn't be.
He almost ditched the car on his way back to Norada, so deeply was he engrossed in thought.