Part Five
Chapter XXVI
 

In delivering his instructions to Oldham, Baker had, of course, no thought of extreme measures. Indeed, had the direct question been put to him, he would most strongly and emphatically have forbidden them. Nevertheless, he was glad to leave his intentions vague, feeling that in thus wilfully shutting his eyes he might avoid personal responsibility for what might happen. He had every confidence that Oldham--a man of more than average cultivation--while he might contemplate lawlessness, was of too high an order to consider physical violence. Baker was inclined to believe that on mature reflection Bob would yield to the accumulation of influence against him. If not, Oldham intimated with no uncertain confidence, that he possessed information of a sort to coerce the Forest officer into silence. If that in turn proved unavailing--a contingency, it must be remembered that Baker hardly thought worth entertainment--why, then, in some one of a thousand perfectly legal ways Oldham could entangle the chief witness into an enforced absence from the trial. This sort of manoeuvre was, later, actually carried out in the person of Mr. Fremont Older, a witness in the graft prosecutions of San Francisco. In short, Baker's intentions, while desperately illegal, contemplated no personal harm to their victim. He gave as general orders to his subordinate: "Keep Orde's testimony out of court"; and shrugged off minute responsibilities.

This command, filtered through a second and inimical personality, gained in strength. Oldham was not of a temperament to contemplate murder. His nerves were too refined; his training too conventional; his imagination too developed. He, too, resolutely kept his intentions a trifle vague. If Orde persisted, then he must be kidnapped for a time.

But Saleratus Bill, professional gun-man, well paid, took his instructions quite brutally. In literal and bald statement he closed the circle and returned to Baker's very words: "Keep Orde's testimony out of court." Only in this case Saleratus Bill read into the simple command a more sinister meaning.

The morning after his return from the lower country, Bob saddled up to ride over to the mill. He wished to tell Welton of his meeting Taylor; and to consult him on the best course to pursue in regard to the bribery charges. With daylight many of his old perplexities had returned. He rode along so deep in thought that the only impression reaching him from the external world was one of the warmth of the sun.

Suddenly a narrow shadow flashed by his eyes. Before his consciousness could leap from its inner contemplation, his arms were pulled flat to his sides, a shock ran through him as though he had received a heavy blow, and he was jerked backward from his horse to hit the ground with great violence.

The wind was knocked from his body, so that for five seconds, perhaps, he was utterly confused. Before he could gather himself, or even comprehend what had happened, a heavy weight flung itself upon him. The beginnings of his feeble struggles were unceremoniously subdued. When, in another ten seconds, his vision had cleared, he found himself bound hand and foot. Saleratus Bill stood over him, slowly recoiling the riata, or throwing rope, with which he had so dexterously caught Bob from behind. After contemplating his victim for a moment, Saleratus Bill mounted his own animal, and disappeared.

Bob, his head humming from the violence of its impact with the ground, listened until the hoof beats had ceased to jar the earth. Then with a methodical desperation he began to wrench and work at his bonds. All his efforts were useless; Saleratus Bill understood "hog-tying" too well. When, finally, he had convinced himself that he could not get away, Bob gave over his efforts. The forest was very still and warm. After a time the sun fell upon him, and he began to feel its heat uncomfortably. The affair was inexplicable. He began to wonder whether Saleratus Bill intended leaving him there a prey to what fortune chance might bring. Although the odds were a hundred to one against his being heard, he shouted several times. About as he had begun once more to struggle against his bonds, his captor returned, leading Bob's horse, and cursing audibly over the difficulty he had been put to in catching it.

Ignoring Bob's indignant demands, the gun-man loosed his ankles, taking, however, the precaution of throwing the riata over the young man's shoulders.

"Climb your horse," he commanded briefly.

"How do you expect me to do that, with my hands tied behind me?" demanded Bob.

"I don't know. Just do it, and be quick," replied Saleratus Bill.

Bob's horse was nervous and restive. Three times he dropped his master heavily to earth. Then Saleratus Bill, his evil eye wary, extended a helping hand. This was what Bob was hoping for; but the gun-man was too wily and experienced to allow himself within the captive's fettered reach.

When Bob had finally gained his saddle, Saleratus Bill, leading the horse, set off at a rapid pace cross country. To all of Bob's questions and commands he turned a deaf ear, until, finally, seeing it was useless to ask, Bob fell silent. Only once did he pause, and then to breathe and water the horses. The country through which they passed was unfamiliar to Bob. He knew only that they were going north, and were keeping to westward of the Second Ranges.

Late that evening Saleratus Bill halted for the night at a little meadow. He fed Bob a thick sandwich, and offered him a cup of water; after which he again shackled the young man's ankles, bound his elbows, and attached the helpless form to a tree. Bob spent the night in this case, covered only by his saddle blanket. The cords cut into his swelled flesh, the retarded circulation pricked him cruelly. He slept little. At early dawn his captor offered him the same fare. By sun-up they were under way again.

All that day they angled to the northwest. The pine forests gave way to oaks, buckthorn, chaparral, as they entered lower country. Several times Saleratus Bill made long detours to avoid clearings and ranches. Bob, in spite of his strength and the excellence of his condition, reeled from sheer weariness and pain. They made no stop at noon.

At two o'clock, or so, they left the last ranch and began once more leisurely to climb. The slope was gentle. A badly washed and eroded wagon grade led them on. It had not been used for years. The horses, now very tired, plodded on dispiritedly.

Then, with the suddenness of a shift of scenery, they topped what seemed to be a trifling rounded hill. On the other side the slope dropped sheer away. Opposite and to north and south were the ranks of great mountains, some dark with the blue of atmosphere before pines, others glittering with snow. Directly beneath, almost under him, Bob saw a valley.

It was many thousand feet below, mathematically round, and completely surrounded by lofty mountains. Indeed, already evening had there spread its shadows, although to the rest of the world the sun was still hours high. Through it flowed a river. From the height it looked like a piece of translucent green glass in the still depths; like cotton-wool where the rapids broke; for the great distance robbed it of all motion. This stream issued from a gorge and flowed into another, both so narrow that the lofty mountains seemed fairly to close them shut.

Through the clear air of the Sierras this valley looked like a toy, a miniature. Every detail was distinct. Bob made out very plainly the pleasant trees, and a bridge over the river, and the roofs of many houses, and the streets of a little town.

To the left the wagon road dropped away down the steep side of the mountain. Bob's eye could follow it, at first a band, then a ribbon, finally a tiny white thread, as it wound and zigzagged, seeking its contours, until finally it ran out on the level and rested at the bridge end. Opposite, on the other mountain, he thought to make out here and there faint suggestions of another way.

Though his eye thus embraced at a glance the whole length of the route, Bob found it a two-hours' journey down. Always the walls of the mountains rose higher and higher above him, gaining in majesty and awe as he abandoned to them the upper air. Always the round valley grew larger, losing its toy-like character. Its features became, not more distinct, but more detailed. Bob saw the streets of the town were pleasantly shaded by cotton woods and willows; he distinguished dwelling houses, a store, an office building, a mill building for crushing of ore. The roar of the river came up to him more clearly. As though some power had released the magic of the stream, the water now moved. Rushing foam and white water tumbled over the black and shining rocks; deep pools eddied, dark and green, shot with swirls.

As it became increasingly evident that the road could lead nowhere but through this village, Bob's spirits rose. The place was well built. Bob caught the shimmer of ample glass in the windows, the colour of paint on the boards, and even the ordered rectangles of brick chimneys! Evidently these things must have been freighted in over the devious steep grade he was at that moment descending. Bob well knew that, even nearer the source of supplies, such mining camps as this appeared to be were most often but a collection of rude, unpainted shanties, huddled together for a temporary need. The orderly, well-kept, decent appearance of this hamlet, more like a shaded New England village than a Western camp, argued old establishment, prosperity, and self-respect. The inhabitants could be no desperate fly-by-nights, such as Saleratus Bill would most likely have sought as companions. Bob made up his mind that the gun-man would shortly try to threaten him into a temporary secrecy as to the condition of affairs. This Bob instantly resolved to refuse.

Saleratus Bill, however, rode on in an unbroken silence. Long after the brawl of the river had become deafening, the road continued to dip and descend. It is a peculiar phenomenon incidental to the descent of the sheer canons of the Sierra Nevada that the last few hundred feet down seem longer than the thousands already passed. This is probably because, having gained close to the level of the tree-tops, the mind, strung taut to the long descent, allows itself prematurely to relax its attention. Bob turned in his saddle to look back at the grade. He could not fail to reflect on how lucky it was that the inhabitants of this village could haul their materials and supplies down the road. It would have been prohibitively difficult to drag anything up.

After a wearisome time the road at last swung out on the flat, and so across the meadow to the bridge. Feed was belly deep to the horses. The bridge proved to be a suspension affair of wire cables, that swung alarmingly until the horses had to straddle in order to stand at all. Below it boiled the river, swirling, dashing, turning lazily and mysteriously over its glass-green depths, the shimmers and folds of eddies rising and swaying like air currents made visible.

They climbed out on solid ground. The road swung to the left and back, following a contour to the slight elevation on which the houses stood. Saleratus Bill, however, turned up a brief short-cut, which landed them immediately on the main street.

Bob saw two stores, an office building and a small hotel, shaded by wooden awnings. Beyond them, and opposite them, were substantial bunk houses and dwelling houses, painted red, each with its elevated, roofed verandah. Large trees, on either side, threw a shade fairly across the thoroughfare. An iron pump and water trough in front of the hotel saved the wayfarer from the necessity of riding his animals down to the river. The vista at the end of the street showed a mill building on a distant mountain side, with the rabbit-burrow dumps of many shafts and prospect holes all about it.

They rode up the street past two or three of the houses, the hotel and the office. Bob, peering in through the windows, saw tables and chairs, old chromos and newer lithographs on the walls. Under the tree at the side of the hotel hung a water olla with a porcelain cup atop. Near the back porch stood a screen meat safe.

But not a soul was in sight. The street was deserted, the houses empty, the office unoccupied. As they proceeded Bob expected from one moment to the next to see a door open, a figure saunter around a corner. Save for the jays and squirrels, the place was absolutely empty.

For some minutes the full realization of this fact was slow in coming. The village exhibited none of the symptoms of abandonment. The window glass was whole; the furniture of such houses as Bob had glanced into while passing stood in its accustomed places. A few strokes of the broom might have made any one of them immediately fit for habitation. The place looked less deserted than asleep; like one of the enchanted palaces so dear to tales of magic. It would not have seemed greatly wonderful to Bob to have seen the town spring suddenly to life in obedience to some spell. If the mill stamps in the distant crusher had creaked and begun to pound; if dogs had rushed barking around corners and from under porches; if from the hotel mine host had emerged, yawning and rubbing his eyes; if from the shops and offices and houses had issued the slow, grumbling sounds of life awakening, it would all have seemed natural and to be expected. Under the influence of this strange effect a deathly stillness seemed to fall, in spite of the bawling and roaring of the river, and the trickle of many streamlets hurrying down from the surrounding hills.

So extraordinary was this effect of suspended animation that Bob again essayed his surly companion.

"What place do you call this?" he inquired.

Saleratus Bill had dismounted, and was stretching his long, lean arms over his head. Evidently he considered this the end of the long and painful journey, and as evidently he was, in his relief, inclined to be better natured.

"Busted minin' camp called Bright's Cove," said he; "they took about ten million dollars out of here before she bust."

"How long ago was that?" asked Bob.

"Ten year or so."

The young man gazed about him in amazement. The place looked as though it might have been abandoned the month before. In his subsequent sojourn he began more accurately to gauge the reasons for this. Here were no small boys to hurl the casual pebble through the delightfully shimmering glass; here was no dust to be swirled into crevices and angles, no wind to carry it; to this remote cove penetrated no vandals to rob, mutilate or wantonly disfigure; and the elevation of the valley's floor was low enough even to avoid the crushing weights of snow that every winter brought to the peaks around it. Only the squirrels, the birds and the tiny wood rats represented in their little way the forces of destruction. Furthermore, the difficulties of transportation absolutely precluded moving any of the small property whose absence so strongly impresses the desertion of a building. When Bright's Cove moved, it had merely to shut the front door. In some cases it did not shut the front door.

Saleratus Bill assisted Bob from the saddle. This had become necessary, for the long ride in bonds had so cramped and stiffened the young man that he was unable to help himself. Indeed, he found he could not stand. Saleratus Bill, after looking at him shrewdly, untied his hands.

"I guess you're safe enough for now," said he.

Bob's wrists were swollen, and his arms so stiff he could hardly use them. Saleratus Bill paused in throwing the saddles off the wearied animals.

"Look here," said he gruffly; "if you pass yore word you won't try to get away or make no fight, I'll turn you loose."

"I'll promise you that for to-night, anyway," returned Bob quickly.

Saleratus Bill immediately cast the ropes into a corner of the verandah.