Part Five
Chapter XXX
 

For ten seconds Oldham sat as Bob had left him. His hat and eyeglasses were gone, his usually immaculate irongray hair rumpled, his clothes covered with dust. A thin stream of blood crept from beneath his close-clipped moustache. But the most striking result of the encounter, to one who had known the man, was in the convulsed expression of his countenance. A close friend would hardly have recognized him. His lips snarled, his eyes flared, the muscles of his face worked. Ordinarily repressed and inscrutable, this crisis had thrown him so far off his balance that, as often happens, he had fallen to the other extreme. Sniffling and half-sobbing, like a punished schoolboy, he dragged himself to where his revolver lay forgotten in the dust. Taking as deliberate aim as his condition permitted, he pulled at the trigger. The hammer refused to rise, or the cylinder to revolve. Abandoning the self-cocking feature of the arm, he tried to cock it by hand. The mechanism grated sullenly against the grit from the road. Oldham worked frantically to get the hammer to catch. By the time he had succeeded, his antagonist was out of reach. With a half-scream of baffled rage, he hurled the now useless weapon in the direction of the young man's disappearance. Then, as Oldham stood militant in the dusty road, a change came over him. Little by little the man resumed his old self. A full minute went by. Save for the quicker breathing, a spectator might have thought him sunk in reverie. At the end of that time the old, self-contained, reserved, cynical Oldham stepped from his tracks, and set methodically to repair damages.

First he searched for and found his glasses, fortunately unbroken. At the nearest streamlet he washed his face, combed his hair, brushed off his clothes. The saddle horse browsed not far away. Finally he walked down the road, picked up the revolver, cleaned it thoroughly of dust, tested it and slipped it into his pocket. Then he resumed his journey, outwardly as self-possessed as ever.

Near the upper dam he had another encounter. The dust of some one approaching warned him some time before the traveller came in sight. Oldham reined back his horse until he could see who it was; then he spurred forward to meet Saleratus Bill.

The gun-man was lounging along at peace with all the world, his bridle rein loose, his leg slung over the pommel of his saddle. At the sight of his employer, he grinned cheerfully.

Oldham rode directly to him.

"Why aren't you attending to your job?" he demanded icily.

"Out of a job," said Saleratus Bill cheerfully.

"Why haven't you kept your man in charge?"

"I did until he just naturally had one of those unavoidable accidents."

"Explain yourself."

"Well. I ain't never been afraid of words. He's dead; that's what."

"Indeed," said Oldham, "Then I suppose I met his ghost just now; and that a spirit gave me this cut lip."

Saleratus Bill swung his leg from the saddle horn and straightened to attention.

"Did he have a hat on?" he demanded keenly.

"Yes--no--I believe not. No, I'm sure he didn't."

"It's him, all right." He shook his head reflectively, "I can't figure it."

Oldham was staring at him with deadly coldness.

"Perhaps you'll be good enough to explain," he sneered--"five hundred dollars worth at any rate."

Saleratus Bill detailed what he knew of the whole affair. Oldham listened to the end. His cynical expression did not change; and the unlighted cigar that he held between his swollen lips never changed its angle.

"And so he just nat'rally disappeared," Saleratus Bill ended his recital. "I can't figure it out."

Then Oldham spat forth the cigar. His calm utterly deserted him. He thrust his livid countenance out at his man.

"Figure it out!" he cried. "You pin-headed fool! You had an unarmed man tied hand and foot, in a three-thousand-foot hole, and you couldn't keep him! And one of the smallest interests involved is worth more than everything your worthless hide can hold! I picked you out for this job because I thought you reliable. And now you come to me with 'I can't figure it out!' That's all the explanation or excuse you bring! You miserable, worthless cur!"

Saleratus Bill was looking at him steadily from his evil, red-rimmed eyes.

"Hold on," he drawled. "Go slow. I don't stand such talk."

Oldham spurred up close to him.

"Don't you try any of your gun-play or intimidation on me," he fairly shouted. "I won't stand for it. You'll hear what I've got to say, just as long as I choose to say it."

He eyed the gun-man truculently. Certainly even Bob could not have accused him of physical cowardice at that moment.

Saleratus Bill stared back at him with the steady, venomous glare of a rattlesnake. Then his lips, under his straggling, sandy moustache, parted in a slow grin.

"Say your say," he conceded. "I reckon you're mad; I reckon that boy man-handled you something scand'lous."

At the words Oldham's face became still more congested.

"But you look a-here," said Saleratus Bill, suddenly leaning across from his saddle and pointing a long, lean finger. "You just remember this: I took this yere job with too many strings tied to it. I mustn't hurt him; and I must see no harm comes to him; and I must be noways cruel to mama's baby. You had me hobbled, and then you cuss me out because I can't get over the rocks. If you'd turned me loose with no instructions except to disappear your man, I'd have earned my money."

He dropped his hand to the butt of his six-shooter, and looked his principal in the eye.

"I'm just as sorry as you are that he made this get-away," he continued slowly. "Now I got to pull up stakes and get out. Nat'rally he'll make it too hot for me here. Then I could use that extry twenty-five hundred that was coming to me on this job. But it ain't too late. He's got away once; but he ain't in court yet. I can easy keep him out, if the original bargain stands. Of course, I'm sorry he punched your face."

"Damn his soul!" burst out Oldham.

"Just let me deal with him my way, instead of yours," repeated Saleratus Bill.

"Do so," snarled Oldham; "the sooner the better."

"That's all I want to hear," said the gun-man, and touched spurs to his horse.