The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Louis Bassett had left for Norada the day after David's sudden illness, but ten days later found him only as far as Chicago, and laid up in his hotel with a sprained knee. It was not until the day Nina went back to the little house in the Ridgely Road, having learned the first lesson of married life, that men must not only be captured but also held, that he was able to resume his journey.
He had chafed wretchedly under the delay. It was true that nothing in the way of a story had broken yet. The Tribune had carried a photograph of the cabin where Clark had according to the Donaldson woman spent the winter following the murder, and there were the usual reports that he had been seen recently in spots as diverse as Seattle and New Orleans. But when the following Sunday brought nothing further he surmised that the pack, having lost the scent, had been called off.
He confirmed this before starting West by visiting some of the offices of the leading papers and looking up old friends. The Clark story was dead for the time. They had run a lot of pictures of him, however, and some one might turn him up eventually, but a scent was pretty cold in ten years. The place had changed, too. Oil had been discovered five years ago, and the old settlers had, a good many of them, cashed in and moved away. The town had grown like all oil towns.
Bassett was fairly content. He took the night train out of Chicago and spent the next day crossing Nebraska, fertile, rich and interesting. On the afternoon of the second day he left the train and took a branch line toward the mountains and Norada, and from that time on he became an urbane, interested and generally cigar-smoking interrogation point.
"Railroad been here long?" he asked the conductor.
"Norada must have been pretty isolated before that."
"Thirty miles in a coach or a Ford car."
"I was reading the other day," said Bassett, "about the Judson Clark case. Have a cigar? Got time to sit down?"
"You a newspaper man?"
"Oil well supplies," said Bassett easily. "Well, in this article it seemed some woman or other had made a confession. It sounded fishy to me."
"Well, I'll tell you about that." The conductor sat down and bit off the end of his cigar. "I knew the Donaldsons well, and Maggie Donaldson was an honest woman. But I'll tell you how I explain the thing. Donaldson died, and that left her pretty much alone. The executors of the Clark estate kept her on the ranch, but when the estate was settled three years ago she had to move. That broke her all up. She's always said he wasn't dead. She kept the house just as it was, and my wife says she had his clothes all ready and everything."
"That rather sounds as though the story is true, doesn't it?"
"Not necessarily. It's my idea she got from hoping to moping, so to speak. She went in to town regular for letters for ten years, and the postmaster says she never got any. She was hurt in front of the post office. The talk around here is that she's been off her head for the last year or two."
"But they found the cabin."
"Sure they did," said the conductor equably. "The cabin was no secret. It was an old fire station before they put the new one on Goat Mountain. I spent a month in it myself, once, with a dude who wanted to take pictures of bear. We found a bear, but it charged the camera and I'd be running yet if I hadn't come to civilization."
When he had gone Bassett fell into deep thought. So Maggie Donaldson had gone to the post office for ten years. He tried to visualize those faithful, wearisome journeys, through spring mud and winter snow, always futile and always hopeful. He did not for a moment believe that she had "gone off her head." She had been faithful to the end, as some women were, and in the end, too, as had happened before, her faith had killed her.
And again he wondered at the curious ability of some men to secure loyalty. They might go through life, tearing down ideals and destroying illusions to the last, but always there was some faithful hand to rebuild, some faithful soul to worship.
He was somewhat daunted at the size and bustling activity of Norada. Its streets were paved and well-lighted, there were a park and a public library, and the clerk at the Commercial Hotel asked him if he wished a private bath! But the development was helpful in one way. In the old Norada a newcomer might have been subjected to a friendly but inquisitive interest. In this grown-up and selfcentered community a man might come and go unnoticed.
And he had other advantages. The pack, as he cynically thought of them, would have started at the Clark ranch and the cabin. He would get to them, of course, but he meant to start on the outside of the circle and work in.
"Been here long?" he asked the clerk at the desk, after a leisurely meal.
The clerk grinned.
"I came here two years ago. I never saw Jud Clark. To get to the Clark place take the road north out of the town and keep straight about eight miles. The road's good now. You fellows have worn it smooth."
"Must have written that down and learned it off," Bassett said admiringly. "What the devil's the Clark place? And why should I go there? Unless," he added, "they serve a decent meal."
"Sorry." The clerk looked at him sharply, was satisfied, and picked up a pen. "You'll hear the story if you stay around here any time. Anything I can do for you?"
"Yes. Fire the cook," Bassett said, and moved away.
He spent the evening in going over his notes and outlining a campaign, and the next day he stumbled on a bit of luck. His elderly chambermaid had lived in and around the town for years.
"Ever hear of any Livingstones in these parts?" he asked.
"Why, yes. There used to be a Livingstone ranch at Dry River," she said, pausing with her carpet sweeper, and looking at him. "It wasn't much of a place. Although you can't tell these days. I sold sixty acres eight years ago for two thousand dollars, and the folks that bought it are getting a thousand a day out of it."
She sighed. She had touched the hem of fortune's garment and passed on; for some opportunity knocked but faintly, and for others it burst open the door and forced its way in.
"I'd be a millionaire now if I'd held on," she said somberly. That day Bassett engaged a car by the day, he to drive it himself and return it in good condition, the garage to furnish tires.
"I'd just like to say one thing," the owner said, as he tried the gears. "I don't know where you're going, and it's not exactly my business. Here in the oil country, where they're cutting each other's throats for new leases, we let a man alone. But if you've any idea of taking that car by the back road to the old fire station where Jud Clark's supposed to have spent the winter, I'll just say this: we've had two stuck up there for a week, and the only way I see to get them back is a cyclone."
"I'm going to Dry River," Bassett said shortly. "Dry River's right, if you're looking for oil! Go easy on the brakes, old man. We need 'em in our business."
Dry River was a small settlement away from the railroad. It consisted of two intersecting unpaved streets, a dozen or so houses, a closed and empty saloon and two general stores. He chose one at random and found that the old Livingstone place had been sold ten years ago, on the death of its owner, Henry Livingstone.
"His brother from the East inherited it," said the storekeeper. "He came and sold out, lock, stock and barrel. Not that there was much. A few cattle and horses, and the stuff in the ranch house, which wasn't valuable. There were a lot of books, and the brother gave them for a library, but we haven't any building. The railroad isn't built this far yet, and unless we get oil here it won't be."
"The brother inherited it, eh? Do you know the brother's name?"
"David, I think. He was a doctor back East somewhere."
"Then this Henry Livingstone wasn't married? Or at least had no children?"
"He wasn't married. He was a sort of hermit. He'd been dead two days before any one knew it. My wife went out when they found him and got him ready for the funeral. He was buried before the brother got here." He glanced at Bassett shrewdly. "The place has been prospected for oil, and there's a dry hole on the next ranch. I tell my wife nature's like the railroad. It quit before it got this far."
Bassett's last scruple had fled. The story was there, ready for the gathering. So ready, indeed, that he was almost suspicious of his luck.
And that conviction, that things were coming too easy, persisted through his interview with the storekeeper's wife, in the small house behind the store. She was a talkative woman, eager to discuss the one drama in a drab life, and she showed no curiosity as to the reason for his question.
"Henry Livingstone !" she said. "Well, I should say so. I went out right away when we got the word he was dead, and there I stayed until it was all over. I guess I know as much about him as any one around here does, for I had to go over his papers to find out who his people were."
The papers, it seemed, had not been very interesting; canceled checks and receipted bills, and a large bundle of letters, all of them from a brother named David and a sister who signed herself Lucy. There had been a sealed one, too, addressed to David Livingstone, and to be opened after his death. She had had her husband wire to "David" and he had come out, too late for the funeral. "Do you remember when that was?"
"Let me see. Henry Livingstone died about a month before the murder at the Clark ranch. We date most things around here from that time."
"How long did 'David' stay?" Bassett had tried to keep his tone carefully conversational, but he saw that it was not necessary. She was glad of a chance to talk.
"Well, I'd say about three or four weeks. He hadn't seen his brother for years, and I guess there was no love lost. He sold everything as quick as he could, and went back East." She glanced at the clock. "My husband will be in soon for dinner. I'd be glad to have you stay and take a meal with us."
The reporter thanked her and declined.
"It's an interesting story," he said. "I didn't tell your husband, for I wasn't sure I was on the right trail. But the David and Lucy business eliminates this man. There's a piece of property waiting in the East for a Henry Livingstone who came to this state in the 80's, or for his heirs. You can say positively that this man was not married?"
"No. He didn't like women. Never had one on the place. Two ranch hands that are still at the Wassons' and himself, that was all. The Wassons are the folks who bought the ranch."
No housekeeper then, and no son born out of wedlock, so far as any evidence went. All that glib lying in the doctor's office, all that apparent openness and frankness, gone by the board! The man in the cabin, reported by Maggie Donaldson, had been David Livingstone. Somehow, some way, he had got Judson Clark out of the country and spirited him East. Not that the how mattered just yet. The essential fact was there, that David Livingstone had been in this part of the country at the time Maggie Donaldson had been nursing Judson Clark in the mountains.
Bassett sat back and chewed the end of his cigar thoughtfully. The sheer boldness of the scheme which had saved Judson Clark compelled his admiration, but the failure to cover the trail, the ease with which he had picked it up, made him suspicious.
He rose and threw away his cigar.
"You say this David went East, when he had sold out the place. Do you remember where he lived?"
"Some town in eastern Pennsylvania. I've forgotten the name." "I've got to be sure I'm wrong, and then go ahead," he said, as he got his hat. "I'll see those men at the ranch, I guess, and then be on my way. How far is it?"
It was about ten miles, along a bad road which kept him too much occupied for any connected thought. But his sense of exultation persisted. He had found Judson Clark.