The Breaking Point
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