Part Five
Chapter XXXIII
 

Oldham's cold rage carried him to the railroad and into his berth. Then, with the regular beat and throb of the carwheels over the sleepers, other considerations forced themselves upon him. Consequences demanded recognition.

The land agent had not for many years permitted himself to act on impulse. Therefore this one lapse from habit alarmed him vaguely by the mere fact that it was a lapse from habit. He distrusted himself in an unaccustomed environment of the emotions.

But superinduced on this formless uneasiness were graver considerations. He could not but admit to himself that he had by his expressed order placed himself to some extent in Saleratus Bill's power. He did not for a moment doubt the gun-man's loyal intentions. As long as things went well he would do his best by his employer--if merely to gain the reward promised him only on fulfillment of his task. But it is not easy to commit a murder undetected. And if detected, Oldham had no illusions as to Saleratus Bill. The gun-man, would promptly shelter himself behind his principal.

As the night went on, and Oldham found himself unable to sleep in the terrible heat, the situation visualized itself. Step by step he followed out the sequence of events as they might be, filling in the minutest details of discovery, exposure and ruin. Gradually, in the tipped balance of after midnight, events as they might be became events as they surely would be. Oldham began to see that he had made a fearful mistake. No compunction entered his mind that he had condemned a man to death; but a cold fear gripped him lest his share should be discovered, and he should be called upon to face the consequences. Oldham enjoyed and could play only the game that was safe so far as physical and personal retribution went.

So deeply did the guilty panic invade his soul that after a time he arose and dressed. The sleepy porter was just turning out from the smoking compartment.

"What's this next station?" Oldham demanded.

"Mo-harvey," blinked the porter.

"I get off there," stated Oldham briefly.

The porter stared at him.

"I done thought you went 'way through," he confessed. "I'se scairt I done forgot you."

"All right," said Oldham curtly, and handing him a tip. "Never mind that confounded brush; get my suit case."

Ten seconds later he stood on the platform of the little station in the desert while the tail lights of the train diminished slowly into the distance.

The desert lay all about him like a calmed sea on which were dim half-lights of sage brush or alkali flats. On a distant horizon slept black mountain ranges, stretched low under a brilliant sky that arched triumphant. In it the stars flamed steadily like candles, after the strange desert fashion. Although by day the heat would have scorched the boards on which he stood, now Oldham shivered in the searching of the cool insistent night wind that breathed across the great spaces.

He turned to the lighted windows of the little station where a tousled operator sat at a telegraph key. A couch in the corner had been recently deserted. The fact that the operator was still awake and on duty argued well for another train soon. Oldham proffered his question.

"Los Angeles express due now. Half-hour late," replied the operator wearily, without looking up.

Oldham caught the train, which landed him in White Oaks about noon. There he hired a team, and drove the sixty miles to Sycamore Flats by eleven o'clock that night. The fear was growing in his heart, and he had to lay on himself a strong retaining hand to keep from lashing his horses beyond their endurance and strength. Sycamore Flats was, of course, long since abed. In spite of his wild impatience Oldham retained enough sense to know that it would not do to awaken any one for the sole purpose of inquiring as to the whereabouts of Saleratus Bill. That would too obviously connect him with the gun-man. Therefore he stabled his horses, roused one of the girls at Auntie Belle's, and retired to the little box room assigned him.

There nature asserted herself. The man had not slept for two nights; he had travelled many miles on horseback, by train, and by buckboard; he had experienced the most exhausting of emotions and experiences. He fell asleep, and he did not awaken until after sun-up.

Promptly he began his inquiries. Saleratus Bill had passed through the night before; he had ridden up the mill road.

Oldham ate his breakfast, saddled one of the team horses, and followed. Ordinarily, he was little of a woodsman, but his anxiety sharpened his wits and his eyes, so that a quarter mile from the summit he noticed where a shod horse had turned off from the road. After a moment's hesitation he turned his own animal to follow the trail. The horse tracks were evidently fresh, and Oldham surmised that it was hardly probable two horsemen had as yet that morning travelled the mill road. While he debated, young Elliott swung down the dusty way headed toward the village. He greeted Oldham.

"Is Orde back at headquarters yet?" the latter asked, on impulse.

"Yes, he got back day before yesterday," the young ranger replied; "but you won't find him there this morning. He walked over to the mill to see Welton. You'd probably get him there."

Oldham waited only until Elliott had rounded the next corner, then spurred his horse up the mountain. The significance of the detour was now no longer in doubt, for he remembered well how and where the wagon trail from headquarters joined the mill road. Saleratus Bill would leave his horse out of sight on the hog-back ridge, sneak forward afoot, and ambush his man at the forks of the road.

And now, in the clairvoyance of this guilty terror, Oldham saw as assured facts several further possibilities. Saleratus Bill was known to have ridden up the mill road; he, Oldham, was known to have been inquiring after both Saleratus Bill and Orde--in short, out of wild improbabilities, which to his ordinary calm judgment would have meant nothing at all, he now wove a tissue of danger. He wished he had thought to ask Elliott how long ago Orde had started out from headquarters.

The last pitch up the mountain was by necessity a fearful grade, for it had to surmount as best it could the ledge at the crest of the plateau. Horsemen here were accustomed to pause every fifty feet or so to allow their mounts a gulp of air. Oldham plied lash and spur. He came out from his frenzy of panic to find his horse, completely blown, lying down under him. The animal, already weary from its sixty-mile drive of yesterday, was quite done. After a futile effort to make it rise, Oldham realized this fact. He pursued his journey afoot.

Somewhat sobered and brought to his senses by this accident, Oldham trudged on as rapidly as his wind would allow. As he neared the crossroads he slackened his pace, for he saw that no living creature moved on the headquarters fork of the road. As a matter of fact, at that precise instant both Bob and Ware were within forty yards of him, standing still waiting for Amy to collect her dogwood leaves. A single small alder concealed them from the other road. If they had not happened to have stopped, two seconds would have brought them into sight in either direction. Therefore, Oldham thought the road empty, and himself came to a halt to catch his breath and mop his brow.

As he replaced his hat, his eye caught a glimpse of a man crouching and gliding cautiously forward through the low concealment of the snowbush. His movements were quick, his head was craned forward, every muscle was taut, his eyes fixed on some object invisible to Oldham with an intensity that evidently excluded from the field of his vision everything but that toward which his lithe and snake-like advance was bringing him. In his hand he carried the worn and shining Colts 45 that was always his inseparable companion.

Oldham made a single step forward. At the same moment somewhere above him on the hill a woman screamed. The cry was instantly followed by two revolver shots.