Part Five
Chapter XXVIII
 

In some manner Saleratus Bill had discovered the young man's escape, and had already eliminated the other possibilities of his direction of flight. Bob shuddered at this evidence of the rapidity with which the expert trailer had arrived at the correct conclusion. He could not now skirt the mountain, as he had intended, for that would at once expose him in full view; he could not return by the way he had come, for that would bring him face to face with his enemy. It would avail him little to surrender, for the gun-man would undoubtedly make good his threats; fidelity to such pledges is one of the few things sacred to the race. With some vague and desperate idea of defence, Bob picked up a heavy branch of driftwood. Then, as the man drew nearer, Bob scrambled hastily over the smooth apron to the tiny beach that the eddies had washed out below the precipice.

Here for the moment he was hidden, but he did not flatter himself he would long remain so. He cast his eyes about him for a way of escape. To the one side was the river, in front of him was the rock apron with his enemy, to the other side and back of him was a sheer precipice. In his perplexity he looked down. A gleam of metal caught his eye. He stooped and picked up the half of a worn horseshoe. Even in his haste of mind, he cast a passing wonderment on how it had come there.

If Bob had not been trained by his river work in the ways of currents, he might sooner have thought of the stream. But well he knew that Saleratus Bill had spoken right when he had said that there were "no swimming holes" here. The strongest swimmer could not have taken two strokes in that cauldron of seething white water. But now, as Bob looked, he saw that a little back eddy along the perpendicularity of the cliff slowed the current close to the sheer rock. It might be just possible, with luck, to win far enough along this cliff to lie concealed behind some outjutting boulder until Saleratus Bill had examined the beach and gone his way. Bob was too much in haste to consider the unexplained tracks he must leave on the sand.

He thrust the branch he carried into the still black water. To his surprise it hit bottom at a foot's depth. Promptly he waded in. Sounding ahead, he walked on. The underwater ledge continued. The water never came above his knees. Out of curiosity he tapped with his branch until he had reached the edge of the submerged shelf. It proved to be some four feet wide. Beyond it the water dropped off sheer, and the current nearly wrenched the staff from Bob's hand.

In this manner he proceeded cautiously for perhaps a hundred feet. Then he waded out on another beach.

He found himself in a pocket of the cliffs, where the precipice so far drew back as to leave a clear space of four or five acres in the river bottom. Such pockets, or "coves," are by no means unusual in the inaccessible depths of the great box canons of the Sierras. Often the traveller can look down on them from above, lying like green gems in their settings of granite, but rarely can he descend to examine them. Thankfully Bob darted to one side. Here for a moment he might be safe, for surely no one not driven by such desperation as his own would dream of setting foot in the river.

A loud snort almost at his elbow, and a rush of scurrying shapes, startled him almost into crying aloud. Then out into the moonlight from the shadow of the cliffs rushed two horses. And Bob, seeing what they were, sprang from his fancied security into instant action, for in a flash he saw the significance of the broken horseshoe on the beach, the sunken ledge, and the secret of the horses' pasture. By sheer chance he had blundered on one of Saleratus Bill's outlaw retreats.

Hastily he skirted the walls of the tiny valley. They were unbroken. The river swept by tortured and tumbled. He ran to the head of the cove. No sunken ledge there rewarded him. Instead, the river at that point swept inward, so that the full force of the current washed the very shores.

Bob searched the prospect with eager eye. Twelve or fifteen feet upstream, and six or seven feet out from the cliff, stood a huge round boulder. That alone broke the shadowy expanse of the river, which here rushed down with great velocity. Manifestly it was impossible to swim to this boulder. Bob, however, conceived a daring idea. At imminent risk and by dint of frantic scrambling he worked his way along the cliff until he had gained a point opposite the boulder and considerably above it. Then, without hesitation, he sprang as strongly as he was able sidewise from the face of the cliff.

He landed on the boulder with great force, so that for a moment he feared he must have broken some bones. Certainly his breath was all but knocked from his body. Spread out flat on the top of the rock, he moved his limbs cautiously. They seemed to work all right. He backed cautiously until he lay outspread on the upstream slope of the boulder. At just this moment he caught the sinister figure of Saleratus Bill moving along the sunken ledge.

For the first time Bob remembered the tracks he must have left and the man's skill at trailing. A rapid review of his most recent actions reassured him at one point; in order to gain to the first of the minor cliff projections by means of which he had spread-eagled along the face of the rock, he had been forced to step into the very shallow water at the stream's edge. Thus his last footprints led directly into the river.

The value of this impression, conjoined with the existence of a ledge below over which he had already waded safely, was not lost on Bob's preception. As has been stated, his earlier experience in river driving had given him an intimate knowledge of the action of currents. Casting his eye hastily down the moonlit river, he seized his hat from his head and threw it low and skimming toward an eddy opposite him as he lay. The river snatched it up, tossed it to one side or another, and finally carried it, as Bob had calculated, within a few feet of the ledge along which Saleratus Bill was still making his way.

The gun-man, of course, caught sight of it, and even made an attempt to capture it as it floated past, but without avail. It served, however, to prepossess his mind with the idea that Bob had been swept away by the river, so that when, after a careful examination of the tiny cove, he came to the trail leading into the water, he was prepared to believe that the young man had been carried off his feet in an attempt to wade out past the cliff. He even picked up a branch, with which he poked at the bottom. A short and narrow rock projection favoured his hypothesis, for it might very well happen that merely an experimental venture on so slanting and slippery a footing would prove fatal. Saleratus Bill examined again for footprints emerging; threw his branch into the river, and watched the direction of its course; and then, for the first time, slipped the worn and shiny old revolver into its holster. He spent several moments more reexamining the cove, glanced again at the river, and finally disappeared, wading slowly back around the sunken ledge.

Bob's next task was to regain solid land. For some minutes he sat astride the boulder, estimating the force and directions of the current. Then he leaped. As he had calculated, the stream threw him promptly against the bank below. There his legs were immediately sucked beneath the overhanging rock that had convinced Saleratus Bill of his captive's fate. It seemed likely now to justify that conviction. Bob clung desperately, until his muscles cracked, but was unable so far to draw his legs from underneath the rock as to gain a chance to struggle out of water. Indeed, he might very well have hung in that equilibrium of forces until tired out, had not a slender, water-washed alder root offered itself to his grasp. This frail shrub, but lightly rooted, nevertheless afforded him just the extra support he required. Though he expected every instant that the additional ounces of weight he from moment to moment applied to it would tear it away, it held. Inch by inch he drew himself from the clutch of the rushing water, until at length he succeeded in getting the broad of his chest against the bank. A few vigorous kicks then extricated him.

For a moment or so he lay stretched out panting, and considering what next was to be done. There was a chance, of course--and, in view of Saleratus Bill's shrewdness, a very strong chance--that the gun-man would add to his precautions a wait and a watch at the entrance to the cove. If Bob were to wade out around the ledge, he might run fairly into his former jailer's gun. On the other hand, Saleratus Bill must be fairly well convinced of the young man's destruction, and he must be desirous of changing his wet clothes. Bob's own predicament, in this chill of night, made him attach much weight to this latter consideration. Besides, any delay in the cove meant more tracks to be noticed when the gun-man should come after the horses. Bob, his teeth chattering, resolved to take the chance of instant action.

Accordingly he waded back along the sunken ledge, glided as quickly as he could over the rock apron, and wormed his way through the grasses to the dry wash leading up the side of the mountains. Here fortune had favoured him, and by a very simple, natural sequence. The moon had by an hour sailed farther to the west; the wash now lay in shadow.

Bob climbed as rapidly as his wind would let him, and in that manner avoided a chill. He reached the road at a broad sheet of rock whereon his footsteps left no trace. After a moment's consideration, he decided to continue directly up the mountainside through the thick brush. This travel must be uncertain and laborious; but if he proceeded along the road, Saleratus Bill must see the traces he would indubitably leave. In the obscurity of the shady side of the mountain he found his task even more difficult than he had thought possible. Again and again he found himself puzzled by impenetrable thickets, impassable precipices, rough outcrops barring his way. By dint of patience and hard work, however, he gained the top of the mountain. At sunrise he looked back into Bright's Cove. It lay there peacefully deserted, to all appearance; but Bob, looking very closely, thought to make out smoke. The long thread of the road was quite vacant.