Part Five
Chapter XXIX
 

Bob had no very clear idea of where he was, except that it was in the unfriendly Durham country. It seemed well to postpone all public appearances until he should be beyond a chance that Saleratus Bill might hear of him. Bob was quite satisfied that the gun-man should believe him to have been swept away by the current.

Accordingly, after he had well rested from his vigorous climb, he set out to parallel the dim old road by which the two had entered the Cove. At times this proved so difficult a matter that Bob was almost on the point of abandoning the hillside tangle of boulders and brush in favour of the open highway. He reflected in time that Saleratus Bill must come out by this route; and he shrewdly surmised the expert trailer might be able from some former minute observation to recognize his footprints. Therefore he struggled on until the road dipped down toward the lower country. He remembered that, on the way in, his captor had led him first down the mountain, and then up again. Bob resolved to abandon the road and keep to the higher contours, trusting to cut the trail where it again mounted to his level. To be sure, it was probable that there existed some very good reason why the road so dipped to the valley--some dike, ridge or deep canon impassable to horses. Bob knew enough of mountains to guess that. Still, he argued, that might not stop a man afoot.

The rest of a long, hard day he spent in proving this latter proposition. The country was very broken. A dozen times Bob scrambled and slid down a gorge, and out again, doing thus an hour's work for a half mile gain. The sun turned hot, and he had no food. Fortunately water was abundant. Toward the close of the afternoon he struck in to a long slope of pine belt, and conceived his difficulties over.

After the heat and glare of the rocks, the cool shadows of the forest were doubly grateful. Bob lifted his face to the wandering breezes, and stepped out with fresh vigour. The way led at first up the narrow spine of a "hogback," but soon widened into one of the ample and spacious parks peculiar to the elevations near the summits of the First Rampart. Occasional cattle tracks meandered here and there, but save for these Bob saw no signs of man's activities--no cuttings, no shake-bolts, no blazes on the trees to mark a way. Nevertheless, as he rose on the slow, even swell of the mountain the conviction of familiarity began to force its way in him. The forest was just like every other forest; there was no outlook in any direction; but all the same, with that instinct for locality inherent in a natural woodsman, he began to get his bearings, to "feel the lay of the country," as the saying is. This is probably an effect of the subconscious mind in memory; a recognition of what the eye has seen without reporting to the conscious mind. However that may be, Bob was not surprised when toward sunset he came suddenly on a little clearing, a tiny orchard, and a house built rudely of logs and shakes.

Relieved that he was not to spend the night without food and fire, he vaulted the "snake" fence, and strode to the back door. A woman was frying venison steaks.

"Hullo, Mrs. Ward," Bob shouted at her. "That smells good to me; I haven't had a bite since last night!"

The woman dropped her pan and came to the door. A lank and lean Pike County Missourian rose from the shadows and advanced.

"Light and rest yo' hat, Mr. Orde!" he called before he came well into view. "But yo' already lighted, and you ain't go no hat!" he cried in puzzled tones. "Whar yo'all from?"

"Came from north," Bob replied cheerfully, "and I lost my horse down a canon, and my hat in a river."

"And yere yo' be plumb afoot!"

"And plumb empty," supplemented Bob. "Maybe Mrs. Ward will make me some coffee," he suggested with a side glance at the woman who had once tried to poison him.

She turned a dull red under the tan of her sallow complexion.

"Shore, Mr. Orde--" she began.

"We didn't rightly understand each other," Bob reassured her. "That was all."

"Did she-all refuse you coffee onct?" asked Ward. "What yo' palaverin' about?"

"She isn't refusing to make me some now," said Bob.

He spent the night comfortably with his new friends who a few months ago had been ready to murder him. The next morning early, supplied with an ample lunch, he set out. Ward offered him a riding horse, but he declined.

"I'd have to send it back," said he, "and, anyway, I'd neither want to borrow your saddle nor ride bareback. I'd rather walk."

The old man accompanied him to the edge of the clearing.

"By the way," Bob mentioned, as he said farewell, "if some one asks you, just tell them you haven't seen me."

The old man stopped short.

"What-for a man?" he asked.

"Any sort."

A frosty gleam crept into the old Missourian's eye.

"I'll keep hands off," said he. He strode on twenty feet. "I got an extra gun--" said he.

"Thanks," Bob interrupted. "But I'll get organized better when I get home."

"Hope you git him," said the old man by way of farewell. "He won't git nothing out of me," he shot back over his shoulder.

Bob now knew exactly where he was going. Reinvigorated by the food, the night's rest, and the cool air of these higher altitudes, he made good time. By four o'clock of the afternoon he at last hit the broad, dusty thoroughfare over which were hauled the supplies to Baker's upper works. Along this he swung, hands in pockets, a whistle on his lips, the fine, light dust rising behind his footsteps. The slight down grade released his tired muscles from effort. He was enjoying himself.

Then he came suddenly around a corner plump against a horseman climbing leisurely up the grade. Both stopped.

If Bob had entertained any lingering doubt as to Oldham's complicity in his abduction, the expression on the land agent's face would have removed it. For the first time in public Oldham's countenance expressed a livelier emotion than that of cynical interest. His mouth fell open and his eyeglasses dropped off. He stared at Bob as though that young man had suddenly sprung into visibility from clear atmosphere. Bob surveyed him grimly.

"Delighted to see me, aren't you?" he remarked. A slow anger surged up within him. "Your little scheme didn't work, did it? Wanted me out of the way, did you? Thought you'd keep me out of court! Well, I'm here, just as I said I'd be here. You can pay your villainous tool or kick him out, as you please. He's failed, and he won't get another chance. You miserable whelp!"

But Oldham had recovered his poise.

"Get out of my way. I don't know what you are talking about. I'll land you in the penitentiary a week after you appear in court. You're warned."

"Oh, I've been warned for some time. But first I'll land you."

"Really! How?"

"Right here and now," said Bob stepping forward.

Oldham reined back his horse, and drew from his side pocket a short, nickel-plated revolver.

"Let me pass!" he commanded harshly. He presented the weapon, and his gray eyes contracted to pin points.

"Throw that thing away," said Bob, laying his hand on the other man's bridle. "I'm going to give you the very worst licking you ever heard tell of!"

The young man's muscles were tense with the expectation of a shot. To his vast astonishment, at his last words Oldham turned deadly pale, swayed in the saddle, and the revolver clattered past his stirrup to fall in the dust. With a snarl of contempt at what he erroneously took for a mere physical cowardice, Bob reached for his enemy and dragged him from the saddle.

The chastisement was brief, but effective. Bob's anger cooled with the first blow, for Oldham was no match for his younger and more vigorous assailant. In fact, he hardly offered any resistance. Bob knocked him down, shook him by the collar as a terrier shakes a ground squirrel, and cast him fiercely in the dust. Oldham sat up, his face bleeding slightly, his eyes bewildered with the suddenness of the onslaught. The young man leaned over him, speaking vehemently to rivet his attention.

"Now you listen to me," said he. "You leave me alone. If I ever hear any gossip, even, about what you will or will not do to me, I'll know where it started from. The first word I hear from any one anywhere, I'll start for you."

He looked down for a moment at the disorganized man seated in the thick, white dust that was still floating lazily around him. Then he turned abruptly away and resumed his journey.