For several days after his visit to the Livingstone ranch Louis Bassett made no move to go to the cabin. He wandered around the town, made promiscuous acquaintances and led up, in careful conversations with such older residents as he could find, to the Clark and Livingstone families. Of the latter he learned nothing; of the former not much that he had not known before.
One day he happened on a short, heavy-set man, the sheriff, who had lost his office on the strength of Jud Clark's escape, and had now recovered it. Bassett had brought some whisky with him, and on the promise of a drink lured Wilkins to his room. Over his glass the sheriff talked.
“All this newspaper stuff lately about Jud Clark being alive is dead wrong,” he declared, irritably. “Maggie Donaldson was crazy. You can ask the people here about her. They all know it. Those newspaper fellows descended on us here with a tooth-brush apiece and a suitcase full of liquor, and thought they'd get something. Seemed to think we'd hold out on them unless we got our skins full. But there isn't anything to hold out. Jud Clark's dead. That's all.”
“Sure he's dead,” Bassett agreed, amiably. “You found his horse, didn't you?”
“Yes. Dead. And when you find a man's horse dead in the mountains in a blizzard, you don't need any more evidence. It was five months before you could see a trail up the Goat that winter.”
Bassett nodded, rose and poured out another drink.
“I suppose,” he observed casually, “that even if Clark turned up now, it would be hard to convict him, wouldn't it?”
The sheriff considered that, holding up his glass.
“Well, yes and no,” he said. “It was circumstantial evidence, mostly. Nobody saw it done. The worst thing against him was his running off.”
“How about witnesses?”
“Nobody actually saw it done. John Donaldson came the nearest, and he's dead. Lucas's wife was still alive, the last I heard, and I reckon the valet is floating around somewhere.”
“I suppose if he did turn up you'd make a try for it.” Bassett stared at the end of his cigar.
“We'd make a try for it, all right,” Wilkins said somberly. “There are some folks in this county still giving me the laugh over that case.”
The next day Bassett hired a quiet horse, rolled in his raincoat two days' supply of food, strapped it to the cantle of his saddle, and rode into the mountains. He had not ridden for years, and at the end of the first hour he began to realize that he was in for a bad time. By noon he was so sore that he could hardly get out of the saddle, and so stiff that once out, he could barely get back again. All morning the horse had climbed, twisting back and forth on a narrow canyon trail, grunting occasionally, as is the way of a horse on a steep grade. All morning they had followed a roaring mountain stream, descending in small cataracts from the ice fields far above. And all morning Bassett had been mentally following that trail as it had been ridden ten years ago by a boy maddened with fear and drink, who drove his horse forward through the night and the blizzard, with no objective and no hope.
He found it practically impossible to connect this frenzied fugitive with the quiet man in his office chair at Haverly, the man who was or was not Judson Clark. He lay on a bank at noon and faced the situation squarely, while his horse, hobbled, grazed with grotesque little forward jumps in an upland meadow. Either Dick Livingstone was Clark, or he was the unknown occasional visitor at the Livingstone Ranch. If he were Clark, and if that could be proved, there were two courses open to Bassett. He could denounce him to the authorities and then spring the big story of his career. Or he could let things stand. From a professional standpoint the first course attracted him, as a man he began to hate it. The last few days had shed a new light on Judson Clark. He had been immensely popular; there were men in the town who told about trying to save him from himself. He had been extravagant, but he had also been generous. He had been “a good kid,” until liberty and money got hold of him. There had been more than one man in the sheriff's posse who hadn't wanted to find him.
He was tempted to turn back. The mountains surrounded him, somber and majestically still. They made him feel infinitely small and rather impertinent, as though he had come to penetrate the secrets they never yielded. He had almost to fight a conviction that they were hostile.
After an hour or so he determined to go on. Let them throw him over a gorge if they so determined. He got up, grunting, and leading the horse beside a boulder, climbed painfully into the saddle. To relieve his depression he addressed the horse:
“It would be easier on both of us if you were two feet narrower in the beam, old dear,” he said.
Nevertheless, he made good time. By six o'clock he knew that he must have made thirty odd miles, and that he must be near the cabin. Also that it was going to be bitterly cold that night, under the snow fields, and that he had brought no wood axe. The deep valley was purple with twilight by seven, and he could scarcely see the rough-drawn trail map he had been following. And the trail grew increasingly bad. For the last mile or two the horse took its own way.
It wandered on, through fords and out of them, under the low-growing branches of scrub pine, brushing his bruised legs against rocks. He had definitely decided that he had missed the cabin when the horse turned off the trail, and he saw it.
It was built of rough logs, the chinks once closed with mud which had fallen away. The door stood open, and his entrance into its darkness was followed by the scurrying of many little feet. Bassett unstrapped his raincoat from the saddle with fingers numb with cold, and flung it to the ground. He uncinched and removed the heavy saddle, hobbled his horse and removed the bridle, and turned him loose with a slap on the flank.
“For the love of Mike, don't go far, old man,” he besought him. And was startled by the sound of his own voice.
By the light of his candle lantern the prospects were extremely poor. The fir branches in the double-berthed bunk were dry and useless, the floor was crumbling under his feet, and the roof of the lean-to had fallen in and crushed the rusty stove. In the cabin itself some one had recently placed a large flat stone in a corner for a fireplace, with two slabs to back it, and above it had broken out a corner of the roof as a chimney. Bassett thought he saw the handwork of some enterprising journalist, and smiled grimly.
He set to work with the resource of a man who had learned to take what came, threw the dry bedding onto the slab and set a match to it, brought in portions of the lean-to roof for further supply for the fire, opened a can of tomatoes and set it on the edge of the hearth to heat, and sliced bacon into his diminutive frying-pan.
It was too late for any examination that night. He ate his supper from the rough table, drawing up to it a broken chair, and afterwards brought in more wood for his fire. Then, with a lighted cigar, and with his boots steaming on the hearth, he sat in front of the blaze and fell into deep study.
He was aching in every muscle when he finally stretched out on the bare boards of the lower bunk. While he slept small furry noses appeared in the openings in the broken floor, to be followed by little bodies that moved cautiously out into the open. He roused once and peered over the edge of the bunk. Several field mice were basking in front of the dying embers of the fire, and two were sitting on his boots. He grinned at them and lay back again, but he found himself fully awake and very uncomfortable. He lay there, contemplating his own folly, and demanding of himself almost fiercely what he had expected to get out of all this effort and misery. For ten years or so men had come here. Wilkins had come, for one, and there had been others. And had found nothing, and had gone away. And now he was there, the end of the procession, to look for God knows what.
He pulled the raincoat up around his shoulders, and lay back stiffly. Then—he was not an imaginative man—he began to feel that eyes were staring at him, furtive, hidden eyes, intently watching him.
Without moving he began to rake the cabin with his eyes, wall to wall, corner to corner. He turned, cautiously, and glanced at the door into the lean-to. It gaped, cavernous and empty. But the sense of being watched persisted, and when he looked at the floor the field mice had disappeared.
He began gradually to see more clearly as his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness, and he felt, too, that he could almost locate the direction of the menace. For as a menace he found himself considering it. It was the broken, windowless East wall, opposite the bunk.
After a time the thing became intolerable. He reached for his revolver, and getting quickly out of the bunk, ran to the doorway and threw open the door, to find himself peering into a blackness like a wall, and to hear a hasty crunching of the underbrush that sounded like some animal in full flight.
With the sounds, and his own movement, the terror died. The cold night air on his face, the feel of the pine needles under his stockinged feet, brought him back to sense and normality. Some creature of the wilderness, a deer or a bear, perhaps, had been moving stealthily outside the cabin, and it was sound he had heard, not a gaze he had felt. He was rather cynically amused at himself. He went back into the cabin, closed the door, and stooped to turn his boots over before the fire.
It was while he was stooping that he heard a horse galloping off along the trail.
He did not go to sleep again. Now and then he considered the possibility of its having been his own animal, somehow freed of the rope and frightened by the same thing that had frightened him. But when with the first light he went outside, his horse, securely hobbled, was grazing on the scant pasture not far away.
Before he cooked his breakfast he made a minute examination of the ground beneath the East wall, but the earth was hard, and a broken branch or two might have been caused by his horse. He had no skill in woodcraft, and in the broad day his alarm seemed almost absurd. Some free horse on the range had probably wandered into the vicinity of the cabin, and had made off again on a trot. Nevertheless, he made up his mind not to remain over another night, but to look about after breakfast, and then to start down again.
He worked on his boots, dry and hard after yesterday's wetting, fried his bacon and dropped some crackers into the sizzling fat, and ate quickly. After that he went out to the trail and inspected it. He had an idea that range horses were mostly unshod, and that perhaps the trail would reveal something. But it was unused and overgrown. Not until he had gone some distance did he find anything. Then in a small bare spot he found in the dust the imprints of a horse's shoes, turned down the trail up which he had come.
Even then he was slow to read into the incident anything that related to himself or to his errand. He went over the various contingencies of the trail: a ranger, on his way to town; a forest fire somewhere; a belated hound from the newspaper pack. He was convinced now that human eyes had watched him for some time through the log wall the night before, but he could not connect them with the business in hand.
He set resolutely about his business, which was to turn up, somehow, some way, a proof of the truth of Maggie Donaldson's dying statement. To begin with then he accepted that statement, to find where it would lead him, and it led him, eventually, to the broken-down stove under the fallen roof of the lean-to.
He deliberately set himself to work, at first, to reconstruct the life in the cabin. Jud would have had the lower bunk, David the upper. The skeleton of a cot bed in the lean-to would have been Maggie's. But none of them yielded anything.
Very well. Having accepted that they lived here, it was from here that the escape was made. They would have started the moment the snow was melted enough to let them get out, and they would have taken, not the trail toward the town, but some other and circuitous route toward the railroad. But there had been things to do before they left. They would have cleared the cabin of every trace of occupancy; the tin cans, Clark's clothing, such bedding as they could not carry. The cans must have been a problem; the clothes, of course, could have been burned. But there were things, like buttons, that did not burn easily. Clark's watch, if he wore one, his cuff links. Buried?
It occurred to him that they might have disposed of some of the unburnable articles under the floor, and he lifted a rough board or two. But to pursue the search systematically he would have needed a pickaxe, and reluctantly he gave it up and turned his attention to the lean-to and the buried stove.
The stove lay in a shallow pit, filled with ancient ashes and crumbled bits of wood from the roof. It lay on its side, its sheet-iron sides collapsed, its long chimney disintegrated. He was in a heavy sweat before he had uncovered it and was able to remove it from its bed of ashes and pine needles. This done, he brought his candle-lantern and settled himself cross-legged on the ground.
His first casual inspection of the ashes revealed nothing. He set to work more carefully then, picking them up by handfuls, examining and discarding. Within ten minutes he had in a pile beside him some burned and blackened metal buttons, the eyelets and a piece of leather from a shoe, and the almost unrecognizable nib of a fountain pen.
He sat with them in the palm of his hand. Taken alone, each one was insignificant, proved nothing whatever. Taken all together, they assumed vast proportions, became convincing, became evidence.
Late that night he descended stiffly at the livery stable, and turned his weary horse over to a stableman.
“Looks dead beat,” said the stableman, eyeing the animal.
“He's got nothing on me,” Bassett responded cheerfully. “Better give him a hot bath and put him to bed. That's what I'm going to do.”
He walked back to the hotel, glad to stretch his aching muscles. The lobby was empty, and behind the desk the night clerk was waiting for the midnight train. Bassett was wide awake by that time, and he went back to the desk and lounged against it.
“You look as though you'd struck oil,” said the night clerk.
“Oil! I'll tell you what I have struck. I've struck a livery stable saddle two million times in the last two days.”
The clerk grinned, and Bassett idly pulled the register toward him.
“J. Smith, Minneapolis,” he read. Then he stopped and stared. Richard Livingstone was registered on the next line above.