Part Five
Chapter XXXII
 

Ware returned to headquarters toward evening of the next day. He had ridden hard and long, but he listened to Thorne's definition of his new duties with kindling eye, and considerable appearance of quiet satisfaction. Bob met him outside the office.

"You aren't living up to your part, Ware," said he, with mock anxiety. "According to Hoyle you ought to draw your gun, whirl the cylinder, and murmur gently, Aha!"

"Why should I do that?" asked Ware, considerably mystified.

"To see if your weapon is in order, of course."

"How would a fool trick like that show whether my gun's in shape?"

"Hanged if I know," confessed Bob, "but they always do that in books and on the stage."

"Well, my gun will shoot," said Ware, shortly.

It was then too late to visit Welton that evening, but at a good hour the following morning Bob announced his intention of going over to the mill.

"If you're going to be my faithful guardian, you'll have to walk," he told Ware. "My horse is up north somewhere, and there isn't another saddle in camp."

"I'm willing," said Ware; "my animals are plumb needy of a rest."

At the last moment Amy joined them.

"I have a day off instead of Sunday," she told them, "and you're the first humans that have discovered what two feet are made for. I never can get anybody to walk two steps with me," she complained.

"Never tried before you acquired those beautiful gray elkskin boots with the ravishing hobnails in 'em," chaffed Bob.

Amy said nothing, but her cheeks burned with two red spots. She chatted eagerly, too eagerly, trying to throw into the expedition the air of a holiday excursion. Bob responded to her rather feverish gaiety, but Ware looked at her with an eye in which comprehension was slowly dawning. He had nothing to add to the rapid-fire conversation. Finally Amy inquired with mock anxiety, over his unwonted silence.

"I'm on my job," replied Ware briefly.

This silenced her for a moment or so, while she examined the woods about them with furtive, searching glances as though their shadows might conceal an enemy.

To Bob, at least, the morning conduced to gaiety, for the air was crisp and sparkling with the wine of early fall. Down through the sombre pines, here and there, flamed the delicate pink of a dogwood, the orange of the azaleas, or the golden yellow of aspens ripening already under the hurrying of early frosts. The squirrels, Stellar's jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees were very busy scurrying here and there, screaming gossip, or moving diligently and methodically as their natures were. All the rest of the forest was silent. Not a breath of wind stirred the tallest fir-tip or swayed the most lofty pine branch. Through the woodland spaces the sunlight sparkled with the inconceivable brilliance of the higher levels, as though the air were filled with glittering particles in suspension, like the mica snowstorms of the peep shows inside a child's candy egg.

They dipped into the canon of the creek and out again through the yellow pines of the other side. They skirted the edge of the ancient clearing for the almost prehistoric mill that had supplied early settlers with their lumber, and thence looked out through trees to the brown and shimmering plain lying far below.

"My, I'm glad I'm not there!" exclaimed Amy fervently; "I always say that," she added.

"A hundred and eleven day before yesterday, Jack Pollock says," remarked Bob.

So at last they gained the long ridge leading toward the mill and saw a hundred feet away the mill road, and the forks where their own wagon trail joined it.

At this point they again entered the forest, screened by young growth and a thicket of alders.

"Look there," Amy pointed out. "See that dogwood, up by the yellow pine. It's the most splendiferous we've seen yet. Wait a minute. I'm going to get a branch of it for Mr. Welton's office. I don't believe anybody ever picks anything for him."

"Let me--" began Bob; but she was already gone, calling back over her shoulder.

"No; this is my treat!"

The men stopped in the wagon trail to wait for her. Bob watched with distinct pleasure her lithe, active figure making its way through the tangle of underbrush, finally emerging into the clear and climbing with swift, sure movements to the little elevation on which grew the beautiful, pink-leaved dogwoods. She turned when she had gained the level of the yellow pine, to wave her hand at her companions. Even at the distance, Bob could make out the flush of her cheeks and divine the delighted sparkle of her eyes.

But as she turned, her gesture was arrested in midair, and almost instantly she uttered a piercing scream. Bob had time to take a half step forward. Then a heavy blow on the back of his neck threw him forward. He stumbled and fell on his face. As he left his feet, the crash of two revolver shots in quick succession rang in his ears.