Part Five
Chapter XXVII
 

The shadows of evening were falling when Saleratus Bill returned from pasturing the wearied horses. Bob had been too exhausted to look about him, even to think. From a cache the gun-man produced several bags of food and a side of bacon. Evidently Bright's Cove was one of his familiar haunts. After a meal which Bob would have enjoyed more had he not been so dead weary, his captor motioned him to one of the bunks. Only too glad for an opportunity to rest, Bob tumbled in, clothes and all.

About midnight he half roused, feeling the mountain chill. He groped instinctively; his hand encountered a quilt, which he drew around his shoulders.

When he awoke it was broad daylight. A persistent discomfort which had for an hour fought with his drowsiness for the ascendancy, now disclosed itself as a ligature tying his elbows at the back. Evidently Saleratus Bill had taken this precaution while the young man slept. Bob could still use his hands and wrists, after a fashion; he could walk about but he would be unable to initiate any effective offence. The situation was admirably analogous to that of a hobbled horse. Moreover, the bonds were apparently of some broad, soft substance like sacking or harness webbing, so that, after Bob had moved from his constrained position, they did not excessively discommode him.

He had no means of guessing what the hour might be, and no sounds reached him from the other parts of the house. His muscles were sore and bruised. For some time he was quite content to lie on his side, thinking matters over.

From his knowledge of the connection between Baker and Oldham, Oldham and his captor, Bob had no doubt as to the purpose of his abduction; nor did he fail to guess that now, with the chief witness out of the way, the trial would be hurried where before it had been delayed. Personally he had little to fear beyond a detention--unless he should attempt to escape, or unless a searching party might blunder on his traces. Bob had already made up his mind to use his best efforts to get away. As to the probabilities of a rescue blundering on this retreat, he had no means of guessing; but he shrewdly concluded that Saleratus Bill was taking no chances.

That individual now entered; and, seeing his captive awake, gruffly ordered him to rise. Bob found an abundant breakfast ready, to which he was able to do full justice. In the course of the meal he made several attempts on his jailer's taciturnity, but without success. Saleratus Bill met all his inquiries, open and guarded, with a sullen silence or evasive, curt replies.

"It don't noways matter why you're here, or how you're here. You are here, and that's all there's to it."

"How long do I stay?"

"Until I get ready to let you go."

"How can you get word from Mr. Oldham when to let me off?" asked Bob.

But Saleratus Bill refused to rise to the bait.

"I'll let you go when I get ready," he repeated.

Bob was silent for some time.

"You know this lets me off from my promise," said he, nodding backward toward his elbows. "I'll get away if I can."

Saleratus Bill, for the first time, permitted himself a smile.

"There's two ways out of this place," said he--"where we come in, and over north on the trail. You can see every inch--both ways--from here. Besides, don't make no mistakes. I'll shoot you if you make a break."

Bob nodded.

"I believe you," said he.

As though to convince Bob of the utter helplessness of any attempt, Saleratus Bill, leaving the dishes unwashed, led the way in a tour of the valley. Save where the wagon road descended and where the steep side hill of the north wall arose, the boundaries were utterly precipitous. From a narrow gorge, flanked by water-smoothed rock aprons, the river boiled between glassy perpendicular cliffs.

"There ain't no swimming-holes in that there river," remarked Saleratus Bill grimly.

Bob, leaning forward, could just catch a glimpse of the torrent raging and buffeting in the narrow box canon, above which the mountains rose tremendous. No stream growths had any chance there. The place was water and rock--nothing more. In the valley itself willows and alders, well out of reach of high water, offered a partial screen to soften the savage vista.

The round valley itself, however, was beautiful. Ripening grasses grew shoulder high. Shady trees swarmed with birds. Bees and other insects hummed through the sun-warmed air.

In vain Bob looked about him for the horses, or for signs of them. They were nowhere to be seen. Saleratus Bill, reading his perplexity, grinned sardonically.

"Yore friends might come in here," said he, evidently not unwilling to expose to Bob the full hopelessness of the latter's case. "And if so, they can trail us in; and then trail us out again!" He pointed to the lacets of the trail up the north wall. He grinned again. "You and I'd just crawl down a mile of mine shaft."

Having thus, to his satisfaction, impressed Bob with the utter futility of an attempt to escape, Saleratus Bill led the way back to the deserted village. There he turned deliberately on his captive.

"Now, young feller, you listen to me," said he. "Don't you try no monkey business. There won't be no questions asked, none whatever. As long as you set and look at the scenery, you won't come to no harm; but the minute you make even a bluff at gettin' funny--even if yore sorry the next minute--I'll shoot. And don't you never forget and try to get nearer to me than three paces. Don't forget that! I don't rightly want to hurt you; but I'd just as leave shoot you as anybody else."

To this view of the situation Bob gave the expected assent.

The next three days were ones of routine. Saleratus Bill spent his time rolling brown-paper cigarettes at a spot that commanded both trails. Bob was instructed to keep in sight. He early discovered the cheering fact that trout were to be had in the glass-green pools; and so spent hours awkwardly manipulating an improvised willow pole equipped with the short line and the Brown Hackle without which no mountaineer ever travels the Sierras. His bound elbows and the crudity of his tackle lost him many fish. Still, he caught enough for food; and his mind was busy.

Canvassing the possibilities, Bob could not but admit that Saleratus Bill knew his job. The river was certain death, and led nowhere except into mysterious and awful granite gorges; the outlets by roads were well in sight. For one afternoon Bob seriously contemplated hazarding a personal encounter. He conceived that in some manner he could get rid of his bonds at night; that Saleratus Bill must necessarily sleep; and that there might be a chance to surprise the gun-man then. But when night came, Saleratus Bill disappeared into the outer darkness; nor did he return until morning. He might have spent the hours camped under the trees of the more remote meadow, whence in the brilliant moonlight he could keep tabs on the trails, or he might be lying near at hand; Bob had no means of telling. Certainly, again the young man reluctantly acknowledged to himself, Saleratus Bill knew his job!

Nevertheless, as the days slipped by; and Bob's physical strength returned in its full measure, his active and bold spirit again took the initiative. A slow anger seized possession of him. The native combative stubbornness of the race asserted itself, the necessity of doing something, the inability tamely to submit to imposed circumstances. Bob's careful analysis of the situation as a whole failed to discover any feasible plan. Therefore he abandoned trying to plan ahead, and fell back on those always-ready and comfortable aphorisims of the adventurous--"sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and "one thing at a time." Obviously, the first thing to do was to free his arms; after that he would see what he would see.

Every evening Saleratus Bill took the candle and departed, leaving Bob to find his own way to his bunk. This was the time to cut his bonds; if at all. Unfortunately Bob could find nothing against which to cut them. Saleratus Bill had carefully removed every abrasive possibility in the two rooms. Bob very wisely relinquished the idea of passing the threshold in search of a suitable rock or piece of tin. He had no notion of risking a bullet until something was likely to be gained by it.

Finally his cogitations brought him an idea. Saleratus Bill was attentive enough to such of the simple creature comforts as were within his means. Bob's pipe had been well supplied with tobacco. On the fourth evening Bob filled it just as his jailor was about to take away the candle for the night.

"Just a minute," said Bob. "Let me have a light."

Bill set the candle on the table again, and retired the three paces which he never forgot rigidly to maintain between himself and his captive. Bob thereupon lit his pipe and nodded his thanks. As soon as Saleratus Bill had well departed, however, he retired to his bunk room, shutting the door carefully after him. There, with great care, he deliberately set to work to coax into flame a small fire on the old hearth, using as fuel the rounds of a broken chair, and as ignition the glowing coal in the bowl of his pipe. Before the hearth he had managed to hang the heavy quilt from his bunk, so that the flicker of the flames should not be visible from the outside.

The little fire caught, blazed for a few moments, and fell to a steady glow. Bob fished out one of the chair rungs, jammed the cool end firmly in one of the open cracks between the timbers of the room, turned his back, and deliberately pressed the band around his elbows against the live coal.

A smell of burning cloth immediately filled the air. After a moment the coal went out. Bob replaced the charred rung in the fire, extracted another, and repeated the operation.

It was exceedingly difficult to gauge the matter accurately, as Bob soon found out to his cost. He managed to burn more holes in his garment--and himself--than in the bonds. However, he kept at it, and after a half hour's steady and patient effort he was able to snap asunder the last strands. He stretched his arms over his head in an ecstasy of physical freedom.

That was all very well, but what next? Bob was suddenly called to a decision which had up to that moment seemed inconceivably remote. Heretofore, an apparent impossibility had separated him from it. Now that impossibility was achieved.

A moment's thought convinced him of the senseless hazard of attempting to slip out through any of the doors or windows. The moon was bright, and Saleratus Bill would have taken his precautions. Bob attacked the floor. Several boards proved to be loose. He pried them up cautiously, and so was enabled to drop through into the open space beneath the house. Thence it was easy to crawl away. Saleratus Bill's precautions were most likely taken, Bob argued to himself, with a view toward a man bound at the elbows, not to a man with two hands. In this he was evidently correct, for after a painful effort, he found himself among the high grasses of the meadow.

There were now, as he recognized, two courses open to him: he could either try to discover Saleratus Bill's sleeping place and by surprise overpower that worthy as he slept; or he could make the best of the interim before his absence was discovered to get as far away as possible. Both courses had obvious disadvantages. The most immediate to the first alternative was the difficulty, failing some clue, of finding Saleratus Bill's sleeping place without too positive a risk of discovery; the most immediate to the second was the difficulty of getting to the other side of the river. As Saleratus Bill might be at any one of a thousand places, in or out of doors; whereas the river could be crossed only by the bridge. Bob, without hesitation, chose the latter.

Therefore he made his way cautiously to that structure. It proved to be lying in broad moonlight. As it constituted the only link with the outside world to the south, Bob could not doubt that his captor had arranged to keep it in sight.

The bridge was, as has been said, suspended across a strait between two rocks by means of heavy wire cables. Slipping beneath these rocks and into the shadow, Bob was rejoiced to find that between the stringers and the shore, smaller cables had been bent to act as guy lines. If he could walk "hand over hand," the distance comprised by the width of the stream he could pass the river below the level of the bridge floor. He measured the distance with his eye. It did not look farther than the length of the gymnasium at college. He seized the cable and swung himself out over the waters.

Immediately the swift and boiling current, though twenty feet below, seemed to suck at his feet. The swirling and flashing of the water dizzied his brain with the impression of falling upstream. He had to fix his eyes on the black flooring above his head. The steel cable, too, was old and rusted and harsh. Bob's hands had not for many years grasped a rope strongly, and in that respect he found them soft. His muscles, cramped more than he had realized by the bonds of his captivity, soon began to drag and stretch. When halfway across, suspended above a ravening torrent; confronted, tired, by an effort he had needed all his fresh energies to put forth, Bob would have given a good deal to have been able to clamber aboard the bridge, risk or no risk. It was, however, a clear case of needs must. He finished the span on sheer nerve and will power; and fell thankfully on the rocks below the farther abutment. For a half minute he lay there, stretching slowly his muscles and straightening his hands, which had become cramped like claws. Then he crept, always in the shadow, to the level of the meadow.

Bob was learning to be a mountaineer. Therefore, on the way down, he had subconsciously noted that from the head of the meadow a steep dry wash climbed straight up to intersect the road. The recollection came to the surface of his mind now. If he could make his way up this wash, he would gain three advantages: he would materially shorten his journey by cutting off a mile or so of the road-grade's twists and doublings; he would avoid the necessity of showing himself so near the Cove in the bright moonlight; and he would leave no tracks where the road touched the valley. Accordingly he turned sharp to the left and began to pick his way upstream, keeping in close to the river and treading as much as possible on the water-worn rocks. The willows and elders protected him somewhat. In this manner he proceeded until he had come to the smooth rock aprons near the gorge from which the river flowed. Here, in accordance with his intention of keeping close in the shadow of the mountain, he was to turn to the right until he should have arrived at the steep "chimney" of the wash. He was about to leave the shelter of the last willows when he looked back. As his eyes turned, a flash of moonlight struck them full, like the heliographing of a mirror. He fixed his gaze on the bushes from which the flicker had come. In a moment it was repeated. Then, stooping low, a human figure hurried across a tiny opening, and once again the moonlight reflected from the worn and shining revolver in its hand.