The old mountaineers retraced their steps, examining carefully every inch of the ground. They returned vastly puzzled.
“No sabe,” California John summed up their investigations. “There’s the man’s track leadin’ his hoss. The hoss had on new shoes, and the robber did his own shoeing. So we ain’t got any blacksmiths to help us.”
“How do you know he shod the horse himself?” asked Jimmy Gaynes.
“Shoes just alike on front and back feet. Shows he must just have tacked on ready-made shoes. A blacksmith shapes ’em different. Those tracks leads right up to this rock: and here they quit. If you can figger how a horse, a man, and nigh four hundredweight of gold dust got off this rock, I’ll be obleeged.”
The men looked up at the perpendicular cliff to their right; over the sheer precipice at their left; and upon the untracked deep, white dust ahead.
“Furthermore,” California John went on, impressively, after a moment, “where did that man and that hoss come from in the beginning? Not from up this way. They’s no fresh tracks comin’ down the road no more than they’s fresh tracks goin’ up. Not from camp. They’s no tracks whatsomever on the road below, except our’n and the stage outfit’s.”
“Are you sure of that?” asked Jimmy, his eyes shining with interest.
“Sartin sure,” replied California John, positively. “We didn’t take no chances on that.”
“Then he must have come into the road from up the mountain or down the mountain.”
“Where?” demanded California John. “A man afoot might scramble down in one or two places; but not a hoss. They ain’t no tracks either side the muss-up where the express was stopped. And at that p’int the mountain is straight up and down, like it is here.”
They talked it over, and argued it, and reexamined the evidence, but without avail. The stubborn facts remained: Between the hold-up and the sheet of rock was one set of tracks going one way; elsewhere, nothing.
Nearly a year passed. If it had not been for the very tangible loss of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the little community at Bright’s Cove might almost have come to doubt the evidence of their senses and the accuracy of their memories, so fantastic on sober reflection did all the circumstances become. Even the indisputable four hundred pounds of gold could not quite avert an unconfessed suspicion of the uncanny. Miners are superstitious folk. Old Man Bright remembered the parting and involved curses of his squaw before she went back to her acorns and pine nuts. To Tibbetts alone he imparted a vague hint of the imaginings into which he had fallen. But he brooded much, seeking a plausible theory that would not force him back on the powers of darkness. This he did not find.
Nor did any other man. It remained a mystery, a single bizarre anomaly in the life of the camp. For some time thereafter the express went heavily guarded. The road was patrolled. Jimmy or George Gaynes in person accompanied each shipment of dust. Their pay streak held out, increased steadily in value. They would hire no assistance for the actual mining in the shaft, although they had several hands to work at the mill. One month they cleaned up twelve thousand dollars.