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XXII


For several days after his visit to the Livingstone ranch Louis
Bassett made no move to go to the cabin. He wandered around the
town, made promiscuous acquaintances and led up, in careful
conversations with such older residents as he could find, to the
Clark and Livingstone families. Of the latter he learned nothing;
of the former not much that he had not known before.

One day he happened on a short, heavy-set man, the sheriff, who had
lost his office on the strength of Jud Clark's escape, and had now
recovered it. Bassett had brought some whisky with him, and on the
promise of a drink lured Wilkins to his room. Over his glass the
sheriff talked.

"All this newspaper stuff lately about Jud Clark being alive is
dead wrong," he declared, irritably. "Maggie Donaldson was crazy.
You can ask the people here about her. They all know it. Those
newspaper fellows descended on us here with a tooth-brush apiece
and a suitcase full of liquor, and thought they'd get something.
Seemed to think we'd hold out on them unless we got our skins full.
But there isn't anything to hold out. Jud Clark's dead. That's all."

"Sure he's dead," Bassett agreed, amiably. "You found his horse,
didn't you?"

"Yes. Dead. And when you find a man's horse dead in the mountains
in a blizzard, you don't need any more evidence. It was five months
before you could see a trail up the Goat that winter."

Bassett nodded, rose and poured out another drink.

"I suppose," he observed casually, "that even if Clark turned up
now, it would be hard to convict him, wouldn't it?"

The 8herlff considered that, holding up his glass.

"Well, yes and no," he said. "It was circumstantial evidence,
mostly. Nobody saw it done. The worst thing against him was his
running off."

"How about witnesses?"

"Nobody actually saw it done. John Donaldson came the nearest, and
he's dead. Lucas's wife was still alive, the last I heard, and I
reckon the valet is floating around somewhere."

"I suppose if he did turn up you'd make a try for it." Bassett
stared at the end of his cigar.

"We'd make a try for it, all right," Wilkins said somberly. "There
are some folks in this county still giving me the laugh over that
case."

The next day Bassett hired a quiet horse, rolled in his raincoat
two days' supply of food, strapped it to the cantle of his saddle,
and rode into the mountains. He had not ridden for years, and at
the end of the first hour he began to realize that he was in for a
bad time. By noon he was so sore that he could hardly get out of
the saddle, and so stiff that once out, he could barely get back
again. All morning the horse had climbed, twisting back and forth
on a narrow canyon trail, grunting occasionally, as is the way of
a horse on a steep grade. All morning they bad followed a roaring
mountain stream, descending in small cataracts from the ice fields
far above. And all morning Bassett had been mentally following
that trail as it had been ridden ten years ago by a boy maddened
with fear and drink, who drove his horse forward through the night
and the blizzard, with no objective and no hope.

He found it practically impossible to connect this frenzied fugitive
with the quiet man in his office chair at Haverly, the man who was
or was not Judson Clark. He lay on a bank at noon and faced the
situation squarely, while his horse, hobbled, grazed with grotesque
little forward jumps in an upland meadow. Either Dick Livingstone
was Clark, or he was the unknown occasional visitor at the
Livingstone Ranch. If he were Clark, and if that could be proved,
there were two courses open to Bassett. He could denounce him to
the authorities and then spring the big story of his career. Or he
could let things stand. From a professional standpoint the first
course attracted him, as a man he began to hate it. The last few
days had shed a new light on Judson Clark. He had been immensely
popular; there were men in the town who told about trying to save
him from himself. He had been extravagant, but he had also been
generous. He had been "a good kid," until liberty and money got
hold of him. There had been more than one man in the sheriff's
posse who hadn't wanted to find him.

He was tempted to turn back. The mountains surrounded him, somber
and majestically still. They made him feel infinitely small and
rather impertinent, as though he had come to penetrate the secrets
they never yielded. He had almost to fight a conviction that they
were hostile.

After an hour or so he determined to go on. Let them throw him
over a gorge if they so determined. He got up, grunting, and
leading the horse beside a boulder, climbed painfully into the
saddle. To relieve his depression he addressed the horse:

"It would be easier on both of us if you were two feet narrower in
the beam, old dear," he said.

Nevertheless, he made good time. By six o'clock he knew that he
must have made thirty odd miles, and that he must be near the cabin.
Also that it was going to be bitterly cold that night, under the
snow fields, and that he had brought no wood axe. The deep valley
was purple with twilight by seven, and he could scarcely see the
rough-drawn trail map he had been following. And the trail grew
increasingly bad. For the last mile or two the horse took its
own way.

It wandered on, through fords and out of them, under the low-growing
branches of scrub pine, brushing his bruised legs against rocks.
He had definitely decided that he had missed the cabin when the
horse turned off the trail, and he saw it.

It was built of rough logs, the chinks once closed with mud which
had fallen away. The door stood open, and his entrance into its
darkness was followed by the scurrying of many little feet.
Bassett unstrapped his raincoat from the saddle with fingers numb
with cold, and flung it to the ground. He uncinched and removed
the heavy saddle, hobbled his horse and removed the bridle, and
turned him loose with a slap on the flank.

"For the love of Mike, don't go far, old man," he besought him.
And was startled by the sound of his own voice.

By the light of his candle lantern the prospects were extremely
poor. The fir branches in the double-berthed bunk were dry and
useless, the floor was crumbling under his feet, and the roof of the
lean-to had fallen in and crushed the rusty stove. In the cabin
itself some one had recently placed a large flat stone in a corner
for a fireplace, with two slabs to back it, and above it had broken
out a corner of the roof as a chimney. Bassett thought he saw the
handwork of some enterprising journalist, and smiled grimly.

He set to work with the resource of a man who had learned to take
what came, threw the dry bedding onto the slab and set a match to
it, brought in portions of the lean-to roof for further supply for
the fire, opened a can of tomatoes and set it on the edge of the
hearth to heat, and sliced bacon into his diminutive frying-pan.

It was too late for any examination that night. He ate his supper
from the rough table, drawing up to it a broken chair, and
afterwards brought in more wood for his fire. Then, with a lighted
cigar, and with his boots steaming on the hearth, he sat in front
of the blaze and fell into deep study.

He was aching in every muscle when he finally stretched out on the
bare boards of the lower bunk. While he slept small furry noses
appeared in the openings in the broken floor, to be followed by
little bodies that moved cautiously out into the open. He roused
once and peered over the edge of the bunk. Several field mice were
basking in front of the dying embers of the fire, and two were
sitting on his boots. He grinned at them and lay back again, but
he found himself fully awake and very uncomfortable. He lay there,
contemplating his own folly, and demanding of himself almost
fiercely what he had expected to get out of all this effort and
misery. For ten days or so men had come here. Wilkins had come,
for one, and there had been others. And had found nothing, and had
gone away. And now he was there, the end of the procession, to
look for God knows what.

He pulled the raincoat up around his shoulders, and lay back stiffly.
Then - he was not an imaginative man - he began to feel that eyes
were staring at him, furtive, hidden eyes, intently watching him.

Without moving he began to rake the cabin with his eyes, wall to
wall, corner to corner. He turned, cautiously, and glanced at the
door into the lean-to. It gaped, cavernous and empty. But the
sense of being watched persisted, and when he looked at the floor
the field mice had disappeared.

He began gradually to see more clearly as his eyes grew accustomed
to the semi-darkness, and he felt, too, that he could almost locate
the direction of the menace. For as a menace he found himself
considering it. It was the broken, windowless East wall, opposite
the bunk.

After a time the thing became intolerable. He reached for his
revolver, and getting quickly out of the bunk, ran to the doorway
and threw open the door, to find himself peering into a blackness
like a wall, and to hear a hasty crunching of the underbrush that
sounded like some animal in full flight.

With the sounds, and his own movement, the terror died. The cold
night air on his face, the feel of the pine needles under his
stockinged feet, brought him back to sense and normality. Some
creature of the wilderness, a deer or a bear, perhaps, had been
moving stealthily outside the cabin, and it was sound he had heard,
not a gaze he had felt. He was rather cynically amused at himself.
He went back into the cabin, closed the door, and stooped to turn
his boots over before the fire.

It was while he was stooping that he heard a horse galloping off
along the trail.

He did not go to sleep again. Now and then he considered the
possibility of its having been his own animal, somehow freed of
the rope and frightened by the same thing that had frightened him.
But when with the first light he went outside, his horse, securely
hobbled, was grazing on the scant pasture not far away.

Before he cooked his breakfast he made a minute examination of the
ground beneath the East wall, but the earth was hard, and a broken
branch or two might have been caused by his horse. He had no skill
in woodcraft, and in the broad day his alarm seemed almost absurd.
Some free horse on the range had probably wandered into the vicinity
of the cabin, and had made off again on a trot. Nevertheless, he
made up his mind not to remain over another night, but to look about
after breakfast, and then to start down again.

He worked on his boots, dry and hard after yesterday's wetting,
fried his bacon and dropped some crackers into the sizzling fat,
and ate quickly. After that he went out to the trail and inspected
it. He had an idea that range horses were mostly unshod, and that
perhaps the trail would reveal something. But it was unused and
overgrown. Not until he had gone some distance did he find anything.
Then in a small bare spot he found in the dust the imprints of a
horse's shoes, turned down the trail up which he had come.

Even then he was slow to read into the incident anything that
related to himself or to his errand. He went over the various
contingencies of the trail: a ranger, on his way to town; a forest
fire somewhere; a belated hound from the newspaper pack. He was
convinced now that human eyes had watched him for some time through
the log wall the night before, but he could not connect them with
the business in hand.

He set resolutely about his business, which was to turn up, somehow,
some way, a proof of the truth of Maggie Donaldson's dying statement.
To begin with then he accepted that statement, to find where it would
lead him, and it led him, eventually, to the broken-down stove under
the fallen roof of the lean-to.

He deliberately set himself to work, at first, to reconstruct the
life in the cabin. Jud would have had the lower bunk, David the
upper. The skeleton of a cot bed in the lean-to would have been
Maggie's. But none of them yielded anything.

Very well. Having accepted that they lived here, it was from here
that the escape was made. They would have started the moment the
snow was melted enough to let them get out, and they would have
taken, not the trail toward the town, but some other and circuitous
route toward the railroad. But there had been things to do before
they left. They would have cleared the cabin of every trace of
occupancy; the tin cans, Clark's clothing, such bedding as they
could not carry. The cans must have been a problem; the clothes,
of course, could have been burned. But there were things, like
buttons, that did not burn easily. Clark's watch, if he wore one,
his cuff links. Buried?

It occurred to him that they might have disposed of some of the
unburnable articles under the floor, and he lifted a rough board or
two. But to pursue the search systematically he would have needed
a pickaxe, and reluctantly he gave it up and turned his attention
to the lean-to and the buried stove.

The stove lay in a shallow pit, filled with ancient ashes and
crumbled bits of wood from the roof. It lay on its side, its
sheet-iron sides collapsed, its long chimney disintegrated. He
was in a heavy sweat before he had uncovered it and was able to
remove it from its bed of ashes and pine needles. This done, he
brought his candle-lantern and settled himself cross-legged on the
ground.

His first casual inspection of the ashes revealed nothing. He set
to work more carefully then, picking them up by handfuls, examining
and discarding. Within ten minutes he had in a pile beside him
some burned and blackened metal buttons, the eyelets and a piece
of leather from a shoe, and the almost unrecognizable nib of a
fountain pen.

He sat with them in the palm of his hand. Taken alone, each one
was insignificant, proved nothing whatever. Taken all together,
they assumed vast proportions, became convincing, became evidence.

Late that night he descended stiffly at the livery stable, and
turned his weary horse over to a stableman.

"Looks dead beat," said the stableman, eyeing the animal.

"He's got nothing on me," Bassett responded cheerfully. "Better
give him a hot bath and put him to bed. That's what I'm going to do."

He walked back to the hotel, glad to stretch his aching muscles.
The lobby was empty, and behind the desk the night clerk was waiting
for the midnight train. Bassett was wide awake by that time, and he
went back to the desk and lounged against it.

"You look as though you'd struck oil," said the night clerk.

"Oil! I'll tell you what I have struck. I've struck a livery stable
saddle two million times in the last two days."

The clerk grinned, and Bassett idly pulled the register toward him.

"J. Smith, Minneapolis," he read. Then he stopped and stared.
Richard Livingstone was registered on the next line above.

Dick had found it hard to leave Elizabeth, for she clung to him in
her grief with childish wistfulness. He found, too, that her family
depended on him rather than on Leslie Ward for moral support. It
was to him that Walter Wheeler looked for assurance that the father
had had no indirect responsibility for the son's death; it was to
him that Jim's mother, lying gray-faced and listless in her bed or
on her couch, brought her anxious questionings. Had Jim suffered?
Could they have avoided it? And an insistent demand to know who and
what had been the girl who was with him.

In spite of his own feeling that he would have to go to Norada
quickly, before David became impatient over his exile, Dick took a
few hours to find the answer to that question. But when he found
it he could not tell them. The girl had been a dweller in the shady
byways of life, had played her small unmoral part and gone on,
perhaps to some place where men were kinder and less urgent. Dick
did not judge her. He saw her, as her kind had been through all
time, storm centers of the social world, passively and unconsciously
blighting, at once the hunters and the prey.

He secured her former address from the police, a three-story brick
rooming-house in the local tenderloin, and waited rather
uncomfortably for the mistress of the place to see him. She came
at last, a big woman, vast and shapeless and with an amiable loose
smile, and she came in with the light step of the overfleshed, only
to pause in the doorway and to stare at him.

"My God !" she said. "I thought you were dead!"

"I'm afraid you're mistaking me for some one else, aren't you?"

She looked at him carefully.

"I'd have sworn - " she muttered, and turning to the button inside
the door she switched on the light. Then she surveyed him again.

"What's your name?"

"Livingstone. Doctor Livingstone. I called - "

"Is that for me, or for the police?"

"Now see here," he said pleasantly. "I don't know who you are
mistaking me for, and I'm not hiding from the police. Here's my
card, and I have come from the family of a young man named Wheeler,
who was killed recently in an automobile accident."

She took the card and read it, and then resumed her intent scrutiny
of him.

"Well, you fooled me all right," she said at last. "I thought you
were - well, never mind that. What about this Wheeler family? Are
they going to settle with the undertaker? Because I tell you flat,
I can't and won't. She owed me a month's rent, and her clothes
won't bring over seventy-five or a hundred dollars."

As he left he was aware that she stood in the doorway looking after
him. He drove home slowly in the car, and on the way he made up a
kindly story to tell the family. He could not let them know that
Jim had been seeking love in the byways of life. And that night he
mailed a check in payment of the undertaker's bill, carefully
leaving the stub empty.

On the third day after Jim's funeral he started for Norada. An
interne from a local hospital, having newly finished his service
there, had agreed to take over his work for a time. But Dick was
faintly jealous when he installed Doctor Reynolds in his office,
and turned him over to a mystified Minnie to look after.

"Is he going to sleep in your bed?" she demanded belligerently.

She was only partially mollified when she found Doctor Reynolds
was to have the spare room. She did not like the way things were
going, she confided to Mike. Why wasn't she to let on to Mrs.
Crosby that Doctor Dick had gone away? Or to the old doctor? Both
of them away, and that little upstart in the office ready to steal
their patients and hang out his own sign the moment they got back!

Unused to duplicity as he was, Dick found himself floundering along
an extremely crooked path. He wrote a half dozen pleasant,
non-committal letters to David and Lucy, spending an inordinate time
on them, and gave them to Walter Wheeler to mail at stated intervals.
But his chief difficulty was with Elizabeth. Perhaps he would have
told her; there were times when he had to fight his desire to have
her share his anxiety as well as know the truth about him. But she
was already carrying the burden of Jim's tragedy, and her father,
too, was insistent that she be kept in ignorance.

"Until she can have the whole thing," he said, with the new
heaviness which had crept into his voice.

Beside that real trouble Dick's looked dim and nebulous. Other
things could be set right; there was always a fighting chance. It
was only death that was final.

Elizabeth went to the station to see him off, a small slim thing
in a black frock, with eyes that persistently sought his face,
and a determined smile. He pulled her arm through his, so he
might hold her hand, and when he found that she was wearing her
ring he drew her even closer, with a wave of passionate possession.

"You are mine. My little girl."

"I am yours. For ever and ever."

But they assumed a certain lightness after that, each to cheer the
other. As when she asserted that she was sure she would always
know the moment he stopped thinking about her, and he stopped, with
any number of people about, and said:

"That's simply terrible! Suppose, when we are married, my mind
turns on such a mundane thing as beefsteak and onions? Will you
simply walk out on me?"

He stood on the lowest step of the train until her figure was lost
in the darkness, and the porter expostulated. He was, that night,
a little drunk with love, and he did not read the note she had
thrust into his hand at the last moment until he was safely in his
berth, his long figure stretched diagonally to find the length it
needed.

"Darling, darling Dick," she had written. "I wonder so often how
you can care for me, or what I have done to deserve you. And I
cannot write how I feel, just as I cannot say it. But, Dick dear,
I have such a terrible fear of losing you, and you are my life now.
You will be careful and not run any risks, won't you? And just
remember this always. Wherever you are and wherever I am, I am
thinking of you and waiting for you."

He read it three times, until he knew it by heart, and he slept
with it in the pocket of his pajama coat.

Three days later he reached Norada, and registered at the Commercial
Hotel. The town itself conveyed nothing to him. He found it
totally unfamiliar, and for its part the town passed him by without
a glance. A new field had come in, twenty miles from the old one,
and had brought with it a fresh influx of prospectors, riggers,
and lease buyers. The hotel was crowded.

That was his first disappointment. He had been nursing the hope
that surroundings which he must once have known well would assist
him in finding himself. That was the theory, he knew. He stood at
the window of his hotel room, with its angular furniture and the
Gideon Bible, and for the first time he realized the difficulty
of what he had set out to do. Had he been able to take David into
his confidence he would have had the names of one or two men to go
to, but as things were he had nothing.

The almost morbid shrinking he felt from exposing his condition
was increased, rather than diminished, in the new surroundings.
He would, of course, go to the ranch at Dry River, and begin his
inquiries from there, but not until now had he realized what that
would mean; his recognition by people he could not remember, the
questions he could not answer.

He knew the letter to David from beginning to end, but he got it
out and read it again. Who was this Bassett, and what mischief
was he up to? Why should he himself be got out of town quickly
and the warning burned? Who was "G"? And why wouldn't the simplest
thing be to locate this Bassett himself?

The more he considered that the more obvious it seemed as a solution,
provided of course he could locate the man. Whether Bassett were
friendly or inimical, he was convinced that he knew or was finding
out something concerning himself which David was keeping from him.

He was relieved when he went down to the desk to find that his man
was registered there, although the clerk reported him out of town.
But the very fact that only a few hours or days separated him from
a solution of the mystery heartened him.

He ate his dinner alone, unnoticed, and after dinner, in the writing
room, with its mission furniture and its traveling men copying
orders, he wrote a letter to Elizabeth. Into it he put some of the
things that lay too deep for speech when he was with her, and
because he had so much to say and therefore wrote extremely fast,
a considerable portion of it was practically illegible. Then, as
though he could hurry the trains East, he put a special delivery
stamp on it.

With that off his mind, and the need of exercise after the trip
insistent, he took his hat and wandered out into the town. The
main street was crowded; moving picture theaters were summoning
their evening audiences with bright lights and colored posters,
and automobiles lined the curb. But here and there an Indian with
braids and a Stetson hat, or a cowpuncher from a ranch in boots
and spurs reminded him that after all this was the West, the horse
and cattle country. It was still twilight, and when he had left
the main street behind him he began to have a sense of the familiar.
Surely he had stood here before, had seen the court-house on its
low hill, the row of frame houses in small gardens just across the
street. It seemed infinitely long ago, but very real. He even
remembered dimly an open place at the other side of the building
where the ranchmen tied their horses. To test himself he walked
around. Yes, it was there, but no horses stood there now, heads
drooping, bridle reins thrown loosely over the rail. Only a muddy
automobile, without lights, and a dog on guard beside it.

He spoke to the dog, and it came and sniffed at him. Then it
squatted in front of him, looking up into his face.

"Lonely, old chap, aren't you?" he said. "Well, you've got
nothing on me."

He felt a little cheered as he turned back toward the hotel. A few
encounters with the things of his youth, and perhaps the cloud
would clear away. Already the court-house had stirred some
memories. And on turning back down the hill he had another swift
vision, photographically distinct but unrelated to anything that
had preceded or followed it. It was like a few feet cut from a
moving picture film.

He was riding down that street at night on a small horse, and his
father was beside him on a tall one. He looked up at his father,
and he seemed very large. The largest man in the world. And the
most important.

It began and stopped there, and his endeavor to follow it further
resulted in its ultimately leaving him. It faded, became less real,
until he wondered if he had not himself conjured it. But that
experience taught him something. Things out of the past would come
or they would not come, but they could not be forced. One could not
will to revive them.

He stood at a window facing north that night, under the impression
it was east, and sent his love and an inarticulate sort of prayer
to Elizabeth, for her safety and happiness, in the general direction
of the Arctic Circle.

Bassett had not returned in the morning, and he found himself with
a day on his hands. He decided to try the experiment of visiting
the Livingstone ranch, or at least of viewing it from a safe
distance, with the hope of a repetition of last night's experience.
Of all his childish memories the ranch house, next to his father,
was most distinct. When he had at various times tried to analyze
what things he recalled he had found that what they lacked of normal
memory was connection. They stood out, like the one the night
before, each complete in itself, brief, and having no apparent
relation to what had gone before or what came after.

But the ranch house had been different. The pictures were mostly
superimposed on it; it was their background. Himself standing on
the mountain looking down at it, and his father pointing to it;
the tutor who was afraid of horses, sitting at a big table in a
great wood-ceiled and wood-paneled room; a long gallery or porch
along one side of the building and rooms added on to the house so
that one had to go along the gallery to reach them; a gun-room
full of guns.

When, much later, Dick was able calmly to review that day, he found
his recollection of it confused by the events that followed, but one
thing stood out as clearly as his later knowledge of the almost
incredible fact that for one entire day and for the evening of
another, he had openly appeared in Norada and had not been
recognized. That fact was his discovery that the Livingstone ranch
house had no place in his memory whatever.

He had hired a car and a driver, a driver who asserted that this
was the old Livingstone ranch house. And it bore no resemblance,
not the faintest, to the building he remembered. It did not lie
where it should have lain. The mountains were too far behind it.
It was not the house. The fields were not the proper fields. It
was wrong, all wrong.

He went no closer than the highway, because it was not necessary.
He ordered the car to turn and go back, and for the first and only
time he was filled with bitter resentment against David. David had
fooled him. He sat beside the driver, his face glowering and his
eyes hot, and let his indignation burn in him like a flame.

Hours afterwards he had, of course, found excuses for David.
Accepted them, rather, as a part of the mystery which wrapped him
about. But they had no effect on the decision he made during that
miserable ride back to Norada, when he determined to see the man
Bassett and get the truth out of him if he had to choke it out.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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