Tavender turned out to be a crossroads settlement of a general store and post office, a garage, a church, and six dwellings, about two miles from Thornburgh’s place. McClump knew the storekeeper and postmaster, a scrawny little man named Philo, who stuttered moistly.

“I n-n-never s-saw Th-thornburgh,” he said, “and I n-n-never had any m-mail for him. C-coons”-it sounded like one of these things butterflies come out of-“used to c-come in once a week to-to order groceries — they d-didn’t have a phone. He used to walk in, and I’d s-send the stuff over in my c-c-car. Th-then I’d s-see him once in a while, waiting f-for the stage to S-s-sacramento.”

“Who drove the stuff out to Thornburgh’s?”

“M-m-my b-boy. Want to t-talk to him?”

The boy was a juvenile edition of the old man, but without the stutter. He had never seen Thornburgh on any of his visits, but his business had taken him only as far as the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed anything peculiar about the place.

“Who’s the night man at the garage?” I asked him.

“Billy Luce. I think you can catch him there now. I saw him go in a few minutes ago.”

We crossed the road and found Luce.

“Night before last — the night of the fire down the road — was there a man here talking to you when you first saw it?”

He turned his eyes upward in that vacant stare which people use to aid their memory.

“Yes, I remember now! He was going to town, and I told him that if he took the county road instead of the state road he’d see the fire on his way in.”

“What kind of looking man was he?”

“Middle-aged — a big man, but sort of slouchy. I think he had on a brown suit, baggy and wrinkled.”

“Medium complexion?”

“Yes.”

“Smile when he talked?”

“Yes, a pleasant sort of fellow.”

“Brown hair?”

“Yeah, but have a heart!” Luce laughed. “I didn’t put him under a magnifying glass.”

From Tavender we drove over to Wayton. … chevronRight icon