The House of Skulls/Chapter 10
I BUILD A WALL.
ON the morning after my encounter with John Talkso, I was working like a beaver on the skull wall in front of my house. I had been working there since dawn.
In front of the wall, I had a solid framework of staked boards, edge to edge, six inches from the wall's face. The end spaces were closed with other boards. From the shore I had toted barrow-loads of sand until my palms were blistered, and from the barn behind the house I had brought a couple of sacks of cement which had lain there unmolested. For lack of a mixing bed I was utilizing a depression in the rock at the head of the path. Bolders of all sizes were handy, and with these I had partially filled the space in front of the wall, enclosed by the boards.
I mixed my concrete rapidly and after four or five batches had been shoveled into the gap, my work was done. The former face of the wall, together with the protruding skulls, was nicely buried behind six inches of concrete.
I was lighting my pipe and vastly admiring my handiwork, when I heard a voice.
"Mercy! What on earth is the matter with your telephone? Here I've walked all the way over here just to see if the pterodactyl had eaten you up—"
It was Martha J. Balliol, flushed and laughing.
"Hurray!" I exclaimed. "I've been building a wall—sure, the phone is wrecked! But I have a few things to show you: important things, too! Come up to the veranda and sit down while I explain."
"But are you a mason?"
"No," I said. "I'm a pterodactyl—and I can prove it."
When she was sitting in one of my porch chairs, which I placed in the middle of the veranda floor. I excused myself and got the bucket and basket which John Talkso had left behind after departing on the previous afternoon.
"Now shut your eyes. Miss Balliol! Promise not to peep."
"Cross my heart," she returned gaily.
I slowly crossed the floor to her, then stepped away a pace or two.
Her wondering gaze fell upon the concrete floor. From the door of the living room to the side of her chair extended a line of fresh, muddy pterodactyl tracks! She almost jumped, then her blue eyes went to me.
"Exhibit A!" I said, holding up the bucket of muddy water, and in the other hand the plaster-of-Paris cast which had made the tracks. "John Talkso was here yesterday. So was the sheriff. Talkso left these things behind—and he's not coming back."
Her face sobered.
"What do you mean. Mr. Desmond?"
"Well," I explained, "this Talkso was an educated chap. He knew what a pterodactyl was, you see—and he knew that other men knew! Then he left some other things. Typical of them was a set of of twelve pieces of round, crimson glass: these, placed in the eyes of those skulls, made a fine crimson effect when seen from the lake. You get the idea?"
Her eyes widened.
"Talkso? That man? But what about my brother—"
"I'm coming to that. Between the sheriff and Talkso, we got the whole thing straightened out yesterday afternoon."
After telling her something of what had happened, I explained.
"Your brother, Miss Balliol, had peculiar notions of what to do with Indian relics. In building this house, he uncovered the so-called graves of the former chiefs of the Indian tribe which inhabited this valley—and which still inhabits it in places. Your brother used the skulls for decoration, and once set in that concrete, the skulls could not be removed without destroying the foundation wall of the house. You see?"
She nodded, watching me with eager absorption.
"Well," I pursued. "this John Talkso found out about it. He came after your brother in a rage and there was a fight on the spot, in which Talkso got worsted. Then he set to work to drive your brother off.
"He invented some very clever stage stuff, such as the pterodactyl tracks and the red glass in the skull-sockets; he also had some other tricks in his basket, and all of them clever. He had managed to make every one believe that this house was haunted. He had once or twice attempted your brother's life—"
"But why?" broke in the girl, astounded. "Whatever made the man act so? Was he mad?"
"Not a bit of it! He was sane. He was also well educated. But—mark this—he was not a white man; he was a half-breed Indian, and he was the last of the Indian chiefs in this particular valley. He had all the Indian's sense of outrage at seeing the skulls of his forefathers ornamenting this house. So, naturally, he tried to drive out the desecraters—your brother and me.
"He did not go in for murder in cold blood. Yesterday he merely entered the room behind you and gave you a shove, for example. In general, he contented himself with such things. But when I met him at McGray's Tavern and beat him up, he lost his head. He hiked over another road from McGray's, a shorter road east of the river, and got here ahead of me. But the sheriff and another man were hunting, and they saw Talkso deliberately ambush my car! It was assault with intent to kill, right enough, and it meant the coop for Mr. Talkso."
"But that wall you were building!" exclaimed Martha Balliol.
"That's the sheriff's idea: our sheriff is a bright man," I returned, laughing. "The skulls, you note, are now buried completely, yet the foundation of the house is not damaged. Thus the feelings of John Talkso have been smoothed over, particularly as he faced the penitentiary if they were not smoothed over! He and his family are rich ranchers across the lake, and beyond having him bounded to keep the peace, I'll not punish him further."
"Then you think—"
"Sure! Everything's all right!"
A little later that day, Martha Balliol was bidding me farewell. There was nothing to keep her here further, she said; at least, she knew of nothing. Nor did I, unhappily. She would go hack East and take up the broken threads again.
"But," I proffered, "will you not let me lake you as far as Lakeport?"
"It will be very kind, Mr. Desmond. Of course!"
"It's a promise?" I anxiously inquired. "Word of honor?"
"Eh?" The blue eyes inspected me with surprise. "Why, of course it is!"
"Good." I lighted my pipe and puffed contentedly. "To tell you the truth, the car is useless—I failed to fix my tires efficiently. There's no gas to run the launch on; I forgot to fill up when we left Lakeport, I was so excited over your arrival! Naturally, we do not want to walk; so, Miss Balliol, we must go by canoe."
"By canoe?" she echoed. "Why—Lakeport is miles and miles away! And I can't paddle a stroke. We'd never get there!"
"Well?" I said inquiringly.
She met my eyes. Slowly a rosy glow crept into her cheeks: then she turned—and passed toward the canoe.