The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
On his arrival at camp he found Elliott much interested over discoveries of his own. It seemed that the Easterner had spent the afternoon fishing. At one point, happening to look up, he caught sight of a man surveying him intently from a thicket. As he stared, the man drew back and disappeared.
"I couldn't see him very plainly," said Elliott. "He had a beard and an old gray hat; but that doesn't mean much of course. When I got my nerve up, and had concluded to investigate, I could hardly find a trace of him. He must wear moccasins, I think."
In return Bob detailed his own experiences. The two could make nothing of it all.
"If we were down South I'd say 'moonshiners,'" said Elliott, "but the beautiful objection to that is, that we aren't!"
"It's some mystery to do with the Basin," said Bob, "and the whole countryside is 'on'--except our boys. I don't believe California John knew a thing about it."
"Didn't act so. Question: what possibly could everybody in the mountains be interested in that the Forest Service would object to?"
"Lots of things," replied Bob promptly, "but I don't believe the mountains are unfriendly to us--as a unit. I know Martin isn't, and he was the first one I noticed as particularly worried."
"If he's so friendly, perhaps he was a little uneasy about us," he suggested at length. "If somebody doesn't want the Forest Service in this neck of the woods--if that somebody is relying on the fact that we never come down in here farther than the lookout, why then it may not be very healthy here."
"Hadn't thought of that," said Bob. "That looks cheerful. But what's the point? Nine-tenths of this timber is private property anyway. There's certainly no trespass--sheep, timber or otherwise--on the government land. What in blazes is the point?"
"Give it up; but we'd better wear our guns."
"I'd have a healthy show against a man who really wanted to get me with a gun. Presumably he'd be an expert, or he wouldn't be sent."
It was agreed, however, "in view of the unsettled state of the country," as Bob gravely characterized the situation, that the young men should stick together in their work.
"There's no use taking chances, of course," Bob summed up, "but there's no sense in making fools of ourselves, either. Lord love you, I don't mind being haunted! They can spring as many mysterious apparitions as they please, so long as said apparitions don't take to heaving bricks. We'd look sweet and lovely, wouldn't we, to go back to headquarters and tell them we'd decided to come in because a bad man with whiskers who'd never been introduced came and looked at us out of the trees."
In pursuance of this determination Bob and Elliott combined forces closely in their next day's work. That this was not a useless precaution early became apparent. As, momentarily separated by a few feet, they passed a dense thicket, Bob was startled by a low whistle. He looked up. Within fifty feet of him, but so far in the shadow as to be indistinguishable, a man peered at him. As he caught Bob's eyes he made a violent gesture whose purport Bob could not guess.
"Did you whistle?" asked Elliott at his elbow. "What's up?"
Bob pointed; but the man had vanished. Where he had stood they found the print of moccasins.
Thrice during the day they were interrupted by this mysterious presence. On each occasion Bob saw him first. Always he gestured, but whether in warning or threat Bob could not tell. Each time be vanished as though the earth had swallowed him the instant Elliott turned at Bob's exclamation.
"I believe he's crazy!" exclaimed Elliott impatiently.
"I'd think so, too," replied Bob, "if it weren't for the way everybody acted down below. Do you suppose he's trying to warn us out or scare us off?"
"I'm going to take a crack at him next time he shows up," threatened Elliott. "I'm getting sick of this."
"No, you can't do that," warned Bob.
"I'm going to tell him so anyway."
"That's all right."
For this experiment they had not long to await the opportunity.
"Hi, there!" shouted Elliott at the place from which the mysterious apparition had disappeared; "I give you fair warning! Step out and declare yourself peaceably or accept the consequences. If you show yourself again after five minutes are up, I'll open fire!"
The empty forest gave no sign. For an hour nothing happened. Then all at once, when Elliott was entangled in a tiny thicket close at Bob's elbow, the latter was startled by the appearance of the man not ten feet away. He leaped apparently from below a rounded rock, and now stood in full view of its crown. Bob had time only to catch cognizance of a blue eye and a long beard, to realize that the man was saying something rapidly and in a low voice, when Elliott's six-shooter exploded so near his ear as almost to deafen him. At the report the man toppled backward off the rock.
"Good Lord! You've killed him!" cried Bob.
"I did not; I fired straight up!" panted Elliott, dashing past him. "Quick! We'll catch him!"
But catch him nor see him again they did not.
Ten minutes later while working in a wide open stretch of forest, they were brought to a stand by the report of a rifle. At the same instant the shock of a bullet threw a shower of dead pine needles and humus over Elliott. Another and another followed, until six had thudded into the soft earth at the young man's feet. He stood quite motionless, and though he went a little pale, his coolness did not desert him. After the sixth shot silence fell abruptly. Elliott stood still for some moments, then moved forward a single step.
"Guess the show's over," he remarked with a curt laugh. He stooped to examine the excavation the bullets had made. "Quaint cuss," he remarked a trifle bitterly. "Just wanted to show me how easy it would be. All right, my friend, I'm obliged to you. We'll quit the gun racket; but next time you show your pretty face I'll give you a run for it."
"And get shot," interposed Bob.
"If it's shoot, we'll get ours any minute. Say," went on the young man in absolutely conversational tones, "don't you see I'm mad?"
Bob looked and saw.
"Maybe you think shooting at me is one of my little niece's favourite summer-day stunts?" went on Elliott. "Well, uncle isn't used to it yet."
His tone was quiet, but his eyes burned and the muscles around his mouth were white.
"He's probably crazy, and he's armed," Bob pointed out. "For heaven's sake, go slow."
"I'm going to paddle his pantalettes, if he commands a gatling," stated Elliott.
But the mysterious visitor appeared no more that afternoon, and Elliott's resolutions had time to settle.
That night the young men turned in rather earlier than usual, as they were very tired. Bob immediately dropped into a black sleep. So deep was his slumber that it seemed to him he had just dropped off, when he was awakened by a cool hand placed across his forehead. He opened his eyes quietly, without alarm, to look full into the waning moon sailing high above. His first drowsy motion was one of astonishment, for the luminary had not arisen when he had turned in. The camp fire had fallen to a few faintly glowing coals. These perceptions came to him so gently that he would probably have dropped asleep again had not the touch on his forehead been repeated. Then he started broad awake to find himself staring at a silhouetted man leaning over him.
With a gesture of caution, the stranger motioned him to arise. Bob obeyed mechanically. The man bent toward him.
"Put on your pants and sweater and come along," he whispered guardedly.
Bob peered at him through the moonlight and recognized, vaguely, the man who had been so mysteriously pursuing them all day. He drew back.
"For the Lord's sake do what I tell you!" whispered the man. "Here!"
His hand sought the shadow of his side, and instantly gleamed with a weapon. Bob started back; but the man was holding the revolver's butt to him.
"Now come on!" besought the stranger with a strange note of pleading. "Don't wake your pardner!"
Yielding, with a pleasant thrill, to the adventure of the situation, and it must be confessed, to a strong curiosity, Bob hastily assumed his outer clothing. Then, with the muzzle of the revolver, he motioned the stranger to proceed.
Stepping cautiously they gained the open forest beyond the screen of brush. Here the man led the way more rapidly. Bob followed close at his heels. They threaded the forest aisles without hesitation, crossed a deep ravine where the man paused to drink, and began to clamber the precipitous and rocky sides of Baldy.
"That'll do for that!" growled Bob suddenly.
The man looked around as though for information.
"You needn't go so fast. Keep about three feet in front of me. And when we strike your gang, you keep close to me. Sabe?"
"I'm alone," expostulated the man.
Nevertheless he slackened pace.
After five minutes' climb they entered a narrow ravine gashed almost perpendicularly in the side of the mountain. At this point, however, it flattened for perhaps fifty paces, so that there existed a tiny foothold. It was concealed from every point, and nevertheless, directly to the west, Bob, pausing for breath, looked out over California slumbering in the moon. On this ledge flowed a tiny stream, and over it grew a score of cedar and fir trees. A fire smouldered near an open camp. On this the man tossed a handful of pitch pine. Immediately the flames started up.
"Here we are!" he remarked aloud.
"Yes, I see we are," replied Bob, looking suspiciously about him, "but what does all this mean?"
"I couldn't get to talk with you no other way, could I?" said the man in tones of complaint; "I sure tried hard enough! But you and your pardner stick closer than brothers."
"If you wanted to speak to me, why didn't you say so?" demanded Bob, his temper rising.
"Well, I don't know who your pardner is, or whether he's reliable, nor nothin'. A man can't be too careful. I thought mebbe you'd make a chance yourself, so I kept giving you a show to. 'Course I didn't want to be seen by him."
"Not seen by him!" broke in Bob impatiently. "What in blazes are you driving at! Explain yourself!"
"I showed myself plain only to you--except when he cut loose that time with his fool six-shooter. I thought he was further in the brush. Why didn't you make a chance to talk?"
"Why should I?" burst out Bob. "Will you kindly explain to me why I should make a chance to talk to you; and why I've been dragged out here in the dead of night?"
"No call to get mad," expostulated the man in rather discouraged tones; "I just thought as how mebbe you was still feeling friendly-like. My mistake. But I reckon you won't be giving me away anyhow?"
During this speech he had slowly produced from his hip pocket a frayed bandana handkerchief; as slowly taken off his hat and mopped his brow.
The removal of the floppy and shady old sombrero exposed to the mingled rays of the fire and the moon the man's full features. Heretofore, Bob had been able to see indistinctly only the meagre facts of a heavy beard and clear eyes.
"George Pollock!" he cried, dropping the revolver and leaping forward with both hands outstretched.