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CHAPTER XXVI

BY A SPIDER THREAD

HE dismounted and gave his horse to one of the others, telling them that he would do the scouting himself this time, and he went back on foot to the house of Pop. He made his steps noiseless as he came closer, not that he expected to surprise Pop to any purpose, but the natural instinct of the trailer made him advance with caution, and, when he was close enough to the door he heard: "Oh, he's a clever gent, well enough, but they ain't any of 'em so clever that they can't learn somethin' new." Hal Dozier paused with his hand raised to rap at the door and he heard Pop say in continuation: "You write this down in red, sonny, and don't you never forget it: The wisest gent is the gent that don't take nothin' for granted."

It came to Hal Dozier that, if he delayed his entrance for another moment, he might hear something distinctly to his advantage; but his role of eavesdropper did not fit with his broad shoulders, and, after knocking on the door, he stepped in. Pop was putting away the dishes, and Jud was scrubbing out the sink.

"The boys are working up the trail," said Hal Dozier, "but they can do it by themselves. I know that the trail ends at the cliff. I'll tell you that poor kid walked to the edge of the cliff, stopped there a minute, made up his mind that he was bleeding to death, and then cut it short. He jumped, missed the rocks underneath, and was carried off by the river." Dozier followed up his statement with some curse words.

He watched the face of the other keenly, but the old man was busy filling his pipe. His eyebrows, to be sure, flicked up as he heard this tragedy announced, and there was a breath from Jud. "I'll tell you, Dozier," said the other, lighting his pipe and then tamping the red-hot coals with his calloused forefinger, "I'm kind of particular about the way people cusses around Jud. He's kind of young, and they ain't any kind of use of him litterin' up his mind with useless words. Don't mean no offense to you, Dozier."

The deputy officer took a chair and tipped it back against the wall. He felt that he had been thoroughly checkmated in his first move; and yet he sensed an atmosphere of suspicion in this little house. It lingered in the air. No doubt it was all created by the words he had overheard before he entered. Also, he noted that Jud was watching him with rather wide eyes and a face of unhealthy pallor; but that might very well be because of the awe which the youngster felt in beholding Hal Dozier, the man hunter, at close range. All these things were decidedly small clews, but the marshal was accustomed to acting on hints.

In the meantime, Pop, having put away the last of the dishes in a cupboard, whose shelves were lined with fresh white paper, offered Dozier a cup of coffee. While he sipped it, the marshal complimented his host on the precision with which he maintained his house.

"It looks like a woman's hand had been at work," concluded the marshal.

"Something better'n that," declared the other. "A man's hand, Dozier. People has an idea that because women mostly do housework men are out of place in a kitchen. It ain't so. Men just got somethin' more important on their hands most of the time." His eyes glanced sadly toward his gun rack. "Women is a pile overpraised, Dozier. The point is, they chatter a consid'able lot about how hard they work, and they all got a favorite way of making jelly or bakin' bread or sewin' calico. But I ask you, man to man, did you ever see a cleaner floor than that in a woman's kitchen?"

The marshal admitted that he never had. "But you're a rare man," he said.

Pop shook his head. "When I was a boy like you," he said, "I wasn't nothin' to be passed up too quick. But a man's young only once, and that's a short time—and he's old for years and years and years, Dozier." He added, for fear that he might have depressed his guest. "But me and Jud team it, you see. I'm extra old and Jud's extra young—so we kind of hit an average."

He touched the shoulder of the boy and there was a flash of eyes between them, the flicker of a smile. Hal Dozier drew a breath. "I got no kids of my own," he declared. "You're lucky, friend. And you're lucky to have this neat little house."

"No, I ain't. They's no luck to it, because I made every sliver of it with my own hands."

An idea came to the deputy marshal. "There's a place up in the hills behind my house, a day's ride," he said, "where I go hunting now and then, and I've an idea a little house like this would be just the thing for me. Mind if I look it over?"

Pop tamped his pipe.

"Sure thing," he said. "Look as much as you like." He stepped to a corner of the room and by a ring he raised a trapdoor. "I got a cellar 'n' everything. Take a look at it below."

He lighted the lantern, and Hal Dozier went down the steep steps, humming. "Look at the way that foundation's put in," said the old man in a loud voice. "I done all that, too, with my own hands."

His voice was so unnecessarily loud, indeed, just as if the deputy were already under ground, that it occurred to Dozier that if a man were lying in that cellar he would be amply warned. And going down he walked with the lantern held to one side, to keep the light off his own body as much as possible; his hand kept at his hip.

But, when he reached the cellar, he found only some boxes and canned provisions in a rack at one side, and a various litter all kept in close order. Big stones had been chiseled roughly into shape to build the walls, and the flooring was as dry as the floor of the house. It was, on the whole, a very solid bit of work. A good place to imprison a man, for instance. At this thought Dozier glanced up sharply and saw the other holding the trapdoor ajar. Something about that implacable, bony face made Dozier turn and hurry back up the stairs to the main floor of the house.

"Nice bit of work down there," he said. "I can use that idea very well. Well," he added carelessly, "I wonder when my fool posse will get through hunting for the remains of poor Lanning? Come to think of it"—for it occurred to him that if the old man were indeed concealing the outlaw he might not know the price which was on his head—"there's a pretty little bit of coin connected with Lanning. Too bad you didn't drop him when he came to your door."

"Drop a helpless man—for money?" asked the old man. "Never, Dozier!"

"He hadn't long to live, anyway," answered the marshal in some confusion. Those old, straight eyes of Pop troubled him.

He fenced with a new stroke for a confession.

"For my part, I've never had much heart in this work of mine,"

"He killed your brother, didn't he?" asked Pop with considerable dryness.

"Bill made the wrong move," replied Hal instantly. "He never should have ridden Lanning down in the first place. Should have let the fool kid go until he found out that Buck Heath wasn't killed. Then he would have come back of his own accord."

"That's a good idea," remarked the other, "but sort of late, it strikes me. Did you tell that to the sheriff?"

"Late it is," remarked Dozier, not following the question. "Now the poor kid is outlawed. Well, between you and me, I wish he'd gotten away clean-handed. As I said before, my heart isn't in this trail. But too late now."

"Who had him outlawed? Who put it up to the governor?" asked Pop shrewdly.

And Hal Dozier had to turn his head and cough, for he found his stroke parried and the point placed at his own breast.

"By the way," he went on, "I'd like to take a squint at your attic, too. That ladder goes up to it, I guess."

"Go ahead," said Pop. And once more he tamped his pipe.

There was a sharp, shrill cry from the boy, and Dozier whirled on him. He saw a pale, scared face, with the freckles standing out more rusty than ever, and the eyes painfully wide.

"What's the matter?" he asked sharply. "What's the matter with you, Jud?" And he fastened his keen glance on the boy.

Vaguely, from the corner of his eye, he felt that Pop had taken the pipe from his mouth. There was a sort of breathless touch in the air of the room.

"Nothin'," said Jud. "Only—you know the rungs of that ladder ain't fit to be walked on, grandad!"

"Jud," said the old man with a strained tone, "It ain't my business to give warnin's to an officer of the law—not mine. He'll find out little things like that for himself."

For one moment Dozier remained looking from one face to the other. He would have given a great deal if he could have made the child meet his glance at that moment, but the boy was looking steadily at his grandfather. Then he shrugged his shoulders and went slowly up the ladder. It squeaked under his weight, he felt the rungs bow and tremble. Halfway up he turned suddenly, but Pop was sitting as old men will, humming a tune and keeping time to it by patting the bowl of his pipe with a forefinger.

And Dozier made up his mind.

He turned and came down the ladder. "I guess there's no use looking in the attic," he said. "Same as any other attic, I suppose, Pop?"

"The same?" asked Pop, taking the pipe from his mouth. "I should tell a man it ain't. It's my work, that attic is, and it's different. But seein' it's you, Dozier, I'll let you copy it. Better go up and see how it's done. I handled the joinin' of them joists pretty slick, but you better go and see for yourself."

And he smiled at the deputy from under his bushy brows. Hal Dozier grinned broadly back at him.

"I've seen your work in the cellar, Pop," he said.

"But nothin' to compare to the work you'd see in the attic. That'll give you somethin' worth talkin' about. Ain't you goin' to go up?"

"I don't want to risk my neck on that ladder, for one thing. No, I'll have to let it go. Besides, I'll have to round up the boys."

He waved farewell, stepped through the door, and closed it behind him.

"Grandad," exclaimed Jud in a gasp.

The old man silenced him with a raised finger and a sudden frown. He slipped to the door in turn with a step so noiseless that even Jud wondered. Years seemed to have fallen from the shoulders of his grandfather. He opened the door quickly, and there stood the deputy. His back, to be sure, was turned to the door, but he hadn't moved.

"Think I see your gang over yonder," said Pop. "They seem to be sort of waitin' for you, Dozier."

The other turned and twisted one glance up at the old man.

"Thanks," he said shortly and strode away.

Pop closed the door and sank into a chair. He seemed suddenly to have aged again.

"Oh, grandad," said Jud, "how'd you guess he was there all the time?"

"I dunno," said Pop. "Don't bother me."

"But why'd you beg him to look into the attic? Didn't you know he'd see him right off?"

"Because he goes by contraries, Jud. He wouldn't of started for the ladder at all, if you hadn't told him he'd probably break his neck on it. Only when he seen I didn't' care, he made up his mind he didn't want to see that attic."

"And if he'd gone up?" whispered Jud.

"Don't ask me what would of happened," said Pop.

All his bony frame was shaken by a shiver.

"Is he such a fine fighter?" asked Jud.

"Fighter?" echoed Pop. "Oh, lad, he's the greatest hand with a gun that ever shoved foot into stirrup. He—he was like a bulldog on a trail and all I had for a rope to hold him was just a little spider thread of thinking. Gimme some coffee, Jud. I've done a day's work."