Part Five
Chapter XXXVI
 

Ware disappeared rapidly up the dusty road, Bob and Amy standing side by side in silence, watching him go. When the lean, long figure of the old mountaineer had quite disappeared, and the light, eddying dust, peculiar to the Sierra country, had died, Amy closed her eyes, raised her hand to her heart, and sank slowly to the bank of the little creek. Her vivid colour, which had for a moment returned under the influence of her strong will and her indignation over her weakness, had again ebbed from her cheeks.

Bob, with an exclamation of alarm, dropped to her side and passed his arm back of her shoulders. As she felt the presence of his support, she let slip the last desperate holdings of physical command, and leaned back gratefully, breathing hard, her eyes still closed.

After a moment she opened them long enough to smile palely at the anxious face of the young man.

"It's all right," she said. "I'm all right. Don't be alarmed. Just let me rest a minute. I'll be all right."

She closed her eyes again. Bob, watching, saw the colour gradually flowing up under her skin, and was reassured.

The girl lay against his arm limply. At first he was concerned merely with the supporting of the slight burden; careful to hold her as comfortably as possible. Then the warmth of her body penetrated to his arm. A new emotion invaded him, feeble in the beginning, but gaining strength from instant to instant. It mounted his breast as a tide would mount, until it had shortened his breath, set his heart to thumping dully, choked his throat. He looked down at her with troubled eyes, following the curve of her upturned face, the long line of her throat exposed by the backward thrown position of her head, the swell of her breast under the thin gown. The helplessness of the pose caught at Bob's heart. For the first time Amy--the vivid, self-reliant, capable, laughing Amy--appealed to him as a being demanding protection, as a woman with a woman's instinctive craving for cherishing, as a delicious, soft, feminine creature, calling forth the tendernesses of a man's heart. In the normal world of everyday association this side of her had never been revealed, never suspected; yet now, here, it rose up to throw into insignificance all the other qualities of the girl he had known. Bob spared a swift thought of gratitude to the chance that had revealed to him this unguessed, intimate phase of womanhood.

And then the insight with which the significant moment had endowed him leaped to the simple comprehension of another thought--that this revelation of intimacy, of the woman-appeal lying unguessed beneath the comradeship of everyday life, was after all only a matter of chance. It had been revealed to him by the accident of a moment's faintness, by which the conscious will of the girl had been driven back from the defences. In a short time it would be over. She would resume her ordinary demeanour, her ordinary interest, her ordinary bright, cheerful, attractive, matter-of-fact, efficient self. Everything would be as before. But--and here Bob's breath came quickest--in the great goodness of the world lay another possibility; that sometime, at the call of some one person, for that one and no other, this inner beautiful soul of the feminine appeal would come forth freely, consciously, willingly.

Amy opened her eyes, sat up, shook herself slightly, and laughed.

"I'm all right now," she told Bob, "and certainly very much ashamed."

"Amy!" he stammered.

She shot a swift look at him, and immediately arose to her feet.

"We will have to testify at a coroner's inquest, I presume," said she, in the most matter-of-fact tones.

"I suppose so," agreed Bob morosely. It is impossible to turn back all the strongly set currents of life without at least a temporary turmoil.

Amy glanced at him sideways, and smiled a faint, wise smile to herself. For in these matters, while men are more analytical after the fact, women are by nature more informed. She said nothing, but stooped to the creek for a drink. When she had again straightened to her feet, Bob had come to himself. The purport of Amy's last speech had fully penetrated his understanding, and one word of it--the word testify--had struck him with an idea.

"By Jove!" he cried, "that lets out Pollock!"

"What?" said Amy.

"This man Oldham was the only witness who could have convicted George Pollock of killing Plant."

"What do you mean?" asked Amy, leaning forward interestedly. "Was he there? How do you know about it?"

A half-hour before Bob would have hesitated long before confiding his secret to a fourth party; but now, for him, the world of relations had shifted.

"I'll tell you about it," said he, without hesitation; "but this is serious. You must never breathe even a word of it to any one!"

"Certainly not!" cried Amy.

"Oldham wasn't an actual witness of the killing; but I was, and he knew it. He could have made me testify by informing the prosecuting attorney."

Bob sketched rapidly his share in the tragedy: how he had held Pollock's horse, and been in a way an accessory to the deed. Amy listened attentively to the recital of the facts, but before Bob had begun to draw his conclusions, she broke in swiftly.

"So Oldham offered to let you off, if you would keep out of this Modoc Land case," said she.

Bob nodded.

"That was it."

"But it would have put you in the penitentiary," she pointed out.

"Well, the case wasn't quite decided yet."

She made her quaint gesture of the happily up-thrown hands.

"Just what you said about Mr. Welton!" she cried. "Oh, I'm glad you told me this! I was trying so hard to think you were doing a high and noble duty in ignoring the consequences to that poor old man. But I could not. Now I see!"

"What do you mean?" asked Bob curiously, as she paused.

"You could do it because your act placed you in worse danger," she told him.

"Too many for me," Bob disclaimed. "I simply wasn't going to be bluffed out by that gang!"

"That was it," said Amy wisely. "I know you better than you do yourself. You don't suppose," she cried, as a new thought alarmed her, "that Oldham has told the prosecuting attorney that your evidence would be valuable."

Bob shook his head.

"The trial is next week," he pointed out. "In case the prosecution had intended calling me, I should have been summoned long since. There's dust; they are coming. You'd better stay here."

She agreed readily to this. After a moment a light wagon drove up. On the seat perched Welton and Ware. Bob climbed in behind.

They drove rapidly down to the forks, stopped and hitched the team.

"Ware's been telling me the whole situation, Bobby," said Welton. "That gang's getting pretty desperate! I've heard of this man Oldham around this country for a long while, but I always understood he was interested against the Power Company."

"Bluff," said Bob briefly. "He's been in their employ from the first, but I never thought he'd go in for quite this kind of strong-arm work. He doesn't look it, do you think?"

"I never laid eyes on him," replied Welton. "He's never been near the mill, and I never happened to run across him anywhere else."

By this time they had secured the team. Ware led the way to the tree under which lay the body of the land agent. Welton surveyed the prostrate figure for some time in silence. Then turned to Bob, a curious expression on his face.

"It wasn't an accident that I never met him," said he. "He saw to it. Don't you remember this man, Bobby?"

"I saw him in Los Angeles some years ago."

"Before that--in Michigan--many years ago."

"His face has always seemed familiar to me," said Bob slowly. "I can't place it--yes--hold on!"

A picture defined itself from the mists of his boyhood memories. It was of an open field, with a fringe of beech woods in the distance. A single hickory stood near its centre, and under this a group lounged, smoking pipes. A man, perched on a cracker box, held a blank book and pencil. Another stood by a board, a gun in his hand. The smell of black powder hung in the atmosphere. Little glass balls popped into the air, and were snuffed out. He saw Oldham distinctly, looking younger and browner, but with the same cynical mouth, the same cold eyes, the same slanted eyeglasses. Even before his recollections reproduced the scorer's drawling voice calling the next contestant, his memory supplied the name.

"It's Newmark!" he cried aloud.

"Joe Newmark, your father's old partner! He hasn't changed much. He disappeared from Michigan when you were about eight years old; didn't he! Nobody ever knew how or why, but everybody had suspicions.... Well; let's get him in."

They disposed the body in the wagon, and drove back up the road. At the little brook they stopped to let off Ware. It was agreed that all danger to Bob was now past, and that the gun-man would do better to accompany Amy back to headquarters. Of course, it would be necessary to work the whole matter out at the coroner's inquest, but in view of the circumstances, Ware's safety was assured.

At the mill the necessary telephoning was done, the officials summoned, and everything put in order.

"What I really started over to see you about," then said Bob to Welton, "is this matter of the Modoc Company." He went on to explain fully Amy's plan for checkmating Baker. "You see, if I get in my word first, Baker is as much implicated as you are, and it won't do him any good to turn state's evidence."

"I don't see as that helps me," remarked Welton gloomily.

"Baker might be willing to put himself in any position," said Bob; "but I doubt if he'll care to take the risk of criminal punishment. I think this will head him off completely; but if it doesn't, every move he makes to save his own skin saves yours too."

"It may do some good," agreed Welton. "Try it."

"I've already written Baker. But I didn't want you to think I was starting up the bloodhounds against you without some blame good reason."

"I'd know that anyway, Bobby," said Welton kindly. He stared moodily at the stovepipe. "This is getting too thick for an old-timer," he broke out at last. "I'm just a plain, old-fashioned lumberman, and all I know is to cut lumber. I pass this mess up. I wired your father he'd better come along out."

"Is he coming?" asked Bob eagerly.

"I just got a message over the 'phone from the telegraph office. He'll be in White Oaks as fast as he can get there. Didn't I tell you?"

"Wire him aboard train to go through to Fremont, and that we'll meet him there," said Bob instantly. "It's getting about time to beard the lion in his den."