Part Three
Chapter XX
 

Before the gray dawn one Sunday morning Bob, happening to awaken, heard a strange, rumbling, distant sound to the west. His first thought was that the power dam had been opened and was discharging its waters, but as his senses came to him, he realized that this could not be so. He stretched himself idly. A mocking bird uttered a phrase outside. No dregs of drowsiness remained in him, so he dressed and walked out into the freshness of the new morning. Here the rumbling sound, which he had concluded had been an effect of his half-conscious imagination, came clearer to his ears. He listened for a moment, then walked rapidly to the Lone Pine Hill from whose slight elevation he could see abroad over the low mountains to the west. The gray light before sunrise was now strengthening every moment. By the time Bob had reached the summit of the knoll it had illuminated the world.

A wandering suction of air toward the higher peaks brought with it the murmur of a multitude. Bob topped the hill and turned his eyes to the west. A great cloud of dust arose from among the chaparral and oaks, drifting slowly but certainly toward the Ranges. Bob could now make out the bawling, shouting, lowing of great herds on the march. In spite of pledges and promises, in spite of California John's reports, of Thorne's recommendations, of Plant's assurances, Simeon Wright's cattle were again coming in!

Bob shook his head sadly, and his clear-cut young face was grave. No one knew better than himself what this must mean to the mountain people, for his late spring and early fall work had brought him much in contact with them. He walked thoughtfully down the hill.

When just on the outskirts of the little village he was overtaken by George Pollock on horseback. The mountaineer was jogging along at a foot pace, his spurs jingling, his bridle hand high after the Western fashion. When he saw Bob he reined in, nodding a good morning. Bob noticed that he had strapped on a blanket and slicker, and wore his six-shooter.

"You look as though you were going on a journey," remarked Bob.

"Thinking of it," said Pollock. Bob glanced up quickly at the tone of his voice, which somehow grated unusually on the young man's ear, but the mountaineer's face was placid under the brim of his floppy old hat. "Might as well," continued the cattleman after a moment. "Nothin' special to keep me."

"I'm glad Mrs. Pollock is better," ventured Bob.

"She's dead," stated Pollock without emotion. "Died this morning about two o'clock."

Bob cried out at the utterly unexpected shock of this statement. Pollock looked down on him as though from a great height.

"I sort of expected it," he answered Bob's exclamation. "I reckon we won't talk of it. 'Spose you see that Wright's cattle is coming in again? I'm sorry on account of Jim and the other boys. It wipes me out, of course, but it don't matter as far as I'm concerned, because I'm going away, anyway."

Bob laid his hand on the man's stirrup leather and walked alongside, thinking rapidly. He did not know how to take hold of the situation.

"Where are you thinking of going?" he asked.

Pollock looked down at him.

"What's that to you?" he demanded roughly.

"Why--nothing--I was simply interested," gasped Bob in astonishment.

The mountaineer's eyes bored him through and through. Finally the man dropped his gaze.

"I'll tell you," said he at last, "'cause you and Jim are the only square ones I know. I'm going to Mexico. I never been there. I'm going by Vermilion Valley, and Mono Pass. If they ask you, you can tell 'em different. I want you to do something for me."

"Gladly," said Bob. "What is it?"

"Just hold my horse for me," requested Pollock, dismounting. "He stands fine tied to the ground, but there's a few things he's plumb afraid of, and I don't want to take chances on his getting away. He goes plumb off the grade for freight teams; he can't stand the crack of their whips. Sounds like a gun to him, I reckon. He won't stand for shooting neither."

While talking the mountaineer handed the end of his hair rope into Bob's keeping.

"Hang on to him," he said, turning away.

George Pollock sauntered easily down the street. At Supervisor Plant's front gate, he turned and passed within. Bob saw him walk rapidly up the front walk, and pound on Plant's bedroom door. This, as usual in the mountains, opened directly out on the verandah. With an exclamation Bob sprang forward, dropping the hair rope. He was in time to see the bedroom door snatched open from within, and Plant's huge figure, white-robed, appear in the doorway. The Supervisor was evidently angry.

"What in hell do you want?" he demanded.

"You," said the mountaineer.

He dropped his hand quite deliberately to his holster, flipped the forty-five out to the level of his hip, and fired twice, without looking at the weapon. Plant's expression changed; turned blank. For an appreciable instant he tottered upright, then his knees gave out beneath him and he fell forward with a crash. George Pollock leaned over him. Apparently satisfied after a moment's inspection, the mountaineer straightened, dropped his weapon into the holster, and turned away.

All this took place in so short a space of time that Bob had not moved five feet from the moment he guessed Pollock's intention to the end of the tragedy. As the first shot rang out, Bob turned and seized again the hair rope attached to Pollock's horse. His habit of rapid decision and cool judgment showed him in a flash that he was too late to interfere, and revealed to him what he must do.

Pollock, looking neither to the right nor the left, took the rope Bob handed him and swung into the saddle. His calm had fallen from him. His eyes burned and his face worked. With a muffled cry of pain he struck spurs to his horse and disappeared.

Considerably shaken, Bob stood still, considering what he must do. It was manifestly his duty to raise the alarm. If he did so, however, he would have to bear witness to what he knew; and this, for George Pollock's sake, he desired to avoid. He was the only one who could know positively and directly and immediately how Plant had died. The sound of the shots had not aroused the village. If they had been heard, no one would have paid any attention to them; the discharge of firearms was too common an occurrence to attract special notice. It was better to let the discovery come in the natural course of events.

However, Bob was neither a coward nor a fool. He wanted to save George Pollock if he could, but he had no intention of abandoning another plain duty in the matter. Without the slightest hesitation he opened Plant's gate and walked to the verandah where the huge, unlovely hulk huddled in the doorway. There, with some loathing, he determined the fact that the man was indeed dead. Convinced as to this point, he returned to the street, and looked carefully up and down it. It was still quite deserted.

His mind in a whirl of horror, pity, and an unconfessed, hidden satisfaction, he returned to Auntie Belle's. The customary daylight breakfast for the teamsters had been omitted on account of the Sabbath. A thin curl of smoke was just beginning to rise straight up from the kitchen stovepipe. Bob, his mouth suddenly dry and sticky, went around to the back porch, where a huge olla hung always full of spring water. He rounded the corner to run plump against Oldham, tilted back in a chair smoking the butt of a cigar.

In his agitation of mind, Bob had no stomach for casual conversation. By an effort he smoothed out his manner and collected his thoughts.

"How are you, Mr. Oldham?" he greeted the older man; "when did you get in?"

"About an hour ago," replied Oldham. His spare figure in the gray business suit did not stir from its lazy posture, nor did the expression of his thin sardonic face change, but somehow, after swallowing his drink, Bob decided to revise his first intention of escaping to his room.

"An hour ago," he repeated, when the import of the words finally filtered through his mental turmoil. "You travelled up at night then?"

"Yes. It's getting hot on the plains."

"Got in just before daylight, then?"

"Just before. I'd have made it sooner, but I had to work my way through the cattle."

"Where's your team?"

"I left it down at the Company's stables; thought you wouldn't mind."

"Sure not," said Bob.

The Company's stables were at the other end of the village. Oldham must have walked the length of the street. He had said it was before daylight; but the look of the man's eyes was quizzical and cold behind the glasses. Still, it was always quizzical and cold. Bob called himself a panicky fool. Just the same, he wished now he had looked for footprints in the dust of the street. While his brain was thus busy with swift conjecture and the weighing of probabilities, his tongue was making random conversation, and his vacant eye was taking in and reporting to his intelligence the most trivial things. Generally speaking, his intelligence did not catch the significance of what his eyes reported until after an appreciable interval. Thus he noted that Oldham had smoked his cigar down to a short butt. This unimportant fact meant nothing, until his belated mind told him that never before had he seen the man actually smoking. Oldham always held a cigar between his lips, but he contented himself with merely chewing it or rolling it about. And this was very early, before breakfast.

"Never saw you smoke before," he remarked abruptly, as this bubble of irrelevant thought came to the surface.

"No?" said Oldham, politely.

"It would make me woozy all day to smoke before I ate," said Bob, his voice trailing away, as his inner ear once more took up its listening for the hubbub that must soon break.

As the moments went by, the suspense of this waiting became almost unbearable. A small portion of him kept up its semblance of conversation with Oldham; another small portion of him made minute and careful notes of trivial things; all the rest of him, body and soul, was listening, in the hope that soon, very soon, a scream would break the suspense. From time to time he felt that Oldham was looking at him queerly, and he rallied his faculties to the task of seeming natural.

"Aren't you feeling well?" asked the older man at last. "You're mighty pale. You want to watch out where you drink water around some of these places."

Bob came to with a snap.

"Didn't sleep well," said he, once more himself.

"Well, that wouldn't trouble me," yawned Oldham; "if it hadn't been for cigars I'd have dropped asleep in this chair an hour ago. You said you couldn't smoke before breakfast; neither can I ordinarily. This isn't before breakfast for me, it's after supper; and I've smoked two just to keep awake."

"Why keep awake?" asked Bob.

"When I pass away, it'll be for all day. I want to eat first."

There, at last, it had come! A man down the street shouted. There followed a pounding at doors, and then the murmur of exclamations, questions and replies.

"It sounds like some excitement," yawned Oldham, bringing his chair down with a thump. "They haven't even rung the first bell yet; let's wander out and stretch our legs."

He sauntered off the wide back porch toward the front of the house. Bob followed. When near the gate Bob's mind grasped the significance of one of the trivial details that his eyes had reported to it some moments before. He uttered an exclamation, and returned hurriedly to the back porch to verify his impressions. They had been correct. Oldham had stated definitely that he had arrived before daylight, that he had been sitting in his chair for over an hour; that during that time he had smoked two cigars through.

Neither on the broad porch, nor on the ground near it, nor in any possible receptacle were there any cigar ashes.