I had not ridden two miles, however, before in the boulder-strewn wash of Arroyo Seco I met Jim Starr, one of our men.
“Look here,” he said to me. “Jed sent me up to look at the Elder Springs, but my hoss has done cast a shoe. Cain’t you ride up there?”
“I cannot,” said I, promptly. “I’ve been out all night and had no breakfast. But you can have my horse.”
So we traded horses and separated, each our own way. They sent me out by Coyote Wells with two other men, and we did not get back until the following evening.
The ranch was buzzing with excitement. Jim Starr had not returned, although the ride to Elder Springs was only a two-hour affair. After a night had elapsed, and still he did not return, two men had been sent. They found him half way to Elder Springs with a bullet hole in his back. The bullet was that of a rifle. Being plainsmen they had done good detective work of its kind, and had determined—by the direction of the bullet’s flight as evidenced by the wound—that it had been fired from a point above. The only point above was the low “rim” that ran for miles down the Soda Springs Valley. It was of black lava and showed no tracks. The men, with a true sense of values, had contented themselves with covering Jim Starr with a blanket, and then had ridden the rim for some miles in both directions looking for a trail. None could be discovered. By this they deduced that the murder was not the result of chance encounter, but had been so carefully planned that no trace would be left of the murderer or murderers.
No theory could be imagined save the rather vague one of personal enmity. Jim Starr was comparatively a newcomer with us. Nobody knew anything much about him or his relations. Nobody questioned the only man who could have told anything; and that man did not volunteer to tell what he knew.
I refer to myself. The thing was sickeningly clear to me. Jim Starr had nothing to do with it. I was the man for whom that bullet from the rim had been intended. I was the unthinking, shortsighted fool who had done Jim Starr to his death. It had never occurred to me that my midnight reconnoitring would leave tracks, that Old Man Hooper’s suspicious vigilance would even look for tracks. But given that vigilance, the rest followed plainly enough. A skillful trailer would have found his way to where I had mounted; he would have followed my horse to Arroyo Seco where I had met with Jim Starr. There he would have visualized a rider on a horse without one shoe coming as far as the Arroyo, meeting me, and returning whence he had come; and me at once turning off at right angles. His natural conclusion would be that a messenger had brought me orders and had returned. The fact that we had shifted mounts he could not have read, for the reason—as I only too distinctly remembered—that we had made the change in the boulder and rock stream bed which would show no clear traces.