Part Five
Chapter XXIV
 

Oldham obeyed his principal's orders by joining Bob on the train back to the city. He dropped down by the young man's side, produced a cigar which he rolled between his lips, but did not light, and at once opened up the subject of his negotiations.

"I wish to point out to you, with your permission," he began, "just where you stand in this matter. In the confusion and haste of a busy time you may not have cast up your accounts. First," he checked off the point on his long, slender forefinger, "in injuring Mr. Baker in this ill-advised fashion you are injuring your old-time employer and friend, Mr. Welton, and this in two ways: you are jeopardizing his whole business, and you are rendering practically certain his conviction on a criminal charge. Mr. Welton is an old man, a simple man, and a kindly man; this thing is likely to kill him." Oldham glanced keenly at the young man's sombre face, and went on. "Second"--he folded back his middle finger--"you are injuring your own father, also in two ways: you are bringing his lawful property into danger, and you are giving his political enemies the most effective sort of a weapon to swing in his coming campaign. And do not flatter yourself they will not make the best of it. It happens that your father has stood strongly with the Conservation members in the late fight in Congress. This would be a pretty scandal. Third," said Oldham, touching his ring finger, "you are injuring yourself. You are throwing away an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with the biggest man in the West; you are making for yourself a powerful enemy; and you are indubitably preparing the way for your removal from office--if removal from such an office can conceivably mean anything to any one." He removed the cigar from his mouth, gazed at the wetted end, waited a moment for the young man to comment, then replaced it, and resumed. "And fourth," he remarked closing his fist so that all fingers were concealed. There he stopped until Bob was fairly compelled to start him on again.

"And fourth----" he suggested, therefore.

"Fourth," rapped out Oldham, briskly, "you injure George Pollock."

"George Pollock!" echoed Bob, trying vainly to throw a tone of ingenuous surprise into his voice.

"Certainly; George Pollock," repeated Oldham. "I arrived in Sycamore Flats at the moment when Pollock murdered Plant. I know positively that you were an eye-witness to the deed. If you testify in one case, I shall certainly call upon you to testify in the other. Furthermore," he turned his gray eyes on Bob, and for the second time the young man was permitted to see an implacable hostility, "although not on the scene itself, I can myself testify, and will, that you held the murderer's horse during the deed, and assisted Pollock to escape. Furthermore, I can testify, and can bring a competent witness, that while supposed to be estimating Government timber in the Basin, you were in communication with Pollock."

"Saleratus Bill!" cried Bob, enlightened as to the trailer's recent activities in the Basin.

"It will be easy to establish not only Pollock's guilt, but your own as accessory. That will put you hard and fast behind the bars--where you belong."

In this last speech Oldham made his one serious mistake of the interview. So long as he had appealed to Bob's feelings for, and sense of duty toward, other men, he had succeeded well in still further confusing the young man's decision. But at the direct personal threat, Bob's combative spirit flared. Suddenly his troubled mind was clarified, as though Oldham's menace had acted as a chemical reagent to precipitate all his doubts. Whatever the incidental hardships, right must prevail. And, as always, in the uprooting of evil, some unlucky innocent must suffer. It is the hardship of life, inevitable, not to be blinked at if a man is to be a man, and do a man's part. He leaned forward with so swift a movement that Oldham involuntarily dodged back.

"You tell your boss," said Bob, "that nothing on God's earth can keep me out of court."

He threw away his half-smoked cigar and went back to the chair car. The sight of Oldham was intolerable to him.

The words were said, and the decision made. In his heart he knew the matter irrevocable. For a few moments he experienced a feeling of relief and freedom, as when a swimmer first gets his head above the surf that has tumbled him. These fine-spun matters of ethical balance had confused and wearied his spirit. He had become bewildered among such varied demands on his personal decision. It was a comfort to fall back on the old straight rule of right conduct no matter what the consequences. The essentials of the situation were not at all altered: Baker was guilty of the rankest fraud; Welton was innocent of every evil intent and should never be punished for what he had been unwillingly and doubtfully persuaded to permit; Orde senior had acquired his lands quite according to the customs and ideas of the time; George Pollock should have been justified a thousand times over in sight of God and man. Those things were to Bob's mind indisputable. To deprive the one man of a very small portion of his fraudulently acquired property, it was apparently necessary to punish three men who should not be punished. These men were, furthermore, all dear to Bob personally. It did not seem right that his decision should plunge them into undeserved penalties. But now the situation was materially altered. Bob also stood in danger from his action. He, too, must suffer with the others. All were in the same boat. The menace to his own liberty justified his course. The innocent must suffer with the guilty; but now the fact that he was one of those who must so suffer, raised his decision from a choice to a necessity. Whatever the consequences, the simplest, least perplexing, most satisfying course was to follow the obvious right. The odium of ingratitude, of lack of affection, of disloyalty, of self-reproach was lifted from him by the very fact that he, too, was one of those who must take consequences. In making the personal threat against the young man's liberty, Oldham had, without knowing it, furnished to his soul the one valid reason for going ahead, conscience-clear.

Though naturally Oldham could not follow out this psychology, he was shrewd enough to understand that he had failed. This surprised him, for he had entertained not the slightest doubt that the threat of the penitentiary would bring Bob to terms.

On arriving in the city, Oldham took quarters at the Buena Vista and sent for Saleratus Bill, whom he had summoned by wire as soon as he had heard from that individual of Bob's intended visit to Fremont.

The spy arrived wearing a new broad, black hat, a celluloid collar, a wrinkled suit of store clothes, and his same shrewd, evil leer. Oldham did not appear, but requested that the visitor be shown into his room. There, having closed the transom, he issued his instructions.

"I want you to pay attention, and not interrupt," said he. "Within a month a case is coming up in which Orde, the Forest man, is to appear as witness. He must not appear. I leave that all to you, but, of course, I want no more than necessary violence. He must be detained until after the trial, and for as long after that as I say. Understand?"

"Sure," said Saleratus Bill. "But when he comes back, he'll fix you just the same."

"I'll see to that part of it. The case will never be reopened. Now, mind you, no shooting----"

"There might be an accident," suggested Saleratus Bill, opening his red eyes and staring straight at his principal.

"Accidents," said Oldham, speaking slowly and judicially, "are always likely to happen. Sometimes they can't be helped." He paused to let these words sink in.

Saleratus Bill wrinkled his eyes in an appreciative laugh. "Accidents is of two kinds: lucky and unlucky," he remarked briefly, by way of parenthesis.

"But, of course, it is distinctly understood," went on Oldham, as though he had not heard, "that this is your own affair. You have nothing to expect from me if you get into trouble. And if you mention my name, you'll merely get jugged for attempted blackmail."

Saleratus Bill's eyes flared.

"Cut it," said he, with a rasp in his voice.

"Nevertheless, that is the case," repeated Oldham, unmoved.

The flame slowly died from Saleratus Bill's eyes.

"I'll want a little raise for that kind of a job," said he.

"Naturally," agreed Oldham.

They entered into discussion of ways and means.

In the meantime Bob had encountered an old friend.