The House of Skulls/Chapter 4
I HEAR A BULLET
OUT of sheer decency, I had to seek another hotel, naturally. I did not pay much attention to M. J. B.'s warning. At midnight, after a tremendously hard day's ride in a car, after a stiff shock and a fainting-spell. the girl would be in pretty bad nervous condition. I took for granted that she was overwrought, and let it go at that.
As I wanted to reach Lakeport the next night, and had a plenitude of bad roads ahead, I was up and off at seven the following morning. Ferrying over to Sausalito delayed me, and before getting to San Rafael I was off on a detour which took me around nearly to Petaluma. The road was fair, but outside Petaluma I picked up a tenpenny-nail held upright by a scrap of wood, and it took one of my cord tires in a jiffy. Fixing that held me up a little while.
I got to Santa Rosa in time for an early luncheon, and discovered that I was going to make Lakeport in the afternoon, barring accidents. This was good news. I also discovered that the last place I could get any liquid refreshment was at the famous tavern kept by one McGray, on ahead. So, about one o'clock. I drew up before the wide-spreading place, in the shade of the immense oaks that shade the tavern-grounds, and went in to get a long, slim drink.
In view of the after-developments of that same day. it might be well to set down that I had one drink, and one only. Upon returning to my car, I came to an abrupt halt in some astonishment. A young man was standing by the off rear wheel, and he was not observing me at all. He was well dressed, but rather swarthy in complexion: this country was full of Italian, French, and Swiss grape specialists, as I had learned coming north, so there was no stating the antecedents of the young man. What interested me, and seemed to be absorbing him, was the fact that he had a knife in his hand and was industriously pecking away at one of my rear tires!
At times I yield to impulse, and this was one of the times. I reached that young man in two jumps and banged him solidly into the car, then jerked him upright and planted my fist rudely against his nose, allowing him to sprawl in the dust.
He picked himself up and went away in a hurry, swearing as he went.
"Of all the infernal deviltry!" I exclaimed as he vanished among the trees. "That fellow certainly had his nerve—"
I was relieved to find that he had effected no damage, beyond a hole in the casing that had not yet reached the breaker strip. Taking for granted that he had had a drop to much. I climbed into the car and departed.
Within no long time I had reached the village of Hopland. my destination on the highway. From here a toll-road ran over the hills to Lakeport, and I turned off without pause in the village, thankful that the end of my trip was in sight—as I thought.
That road was a brute—thick with dust, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, and with crumbly edges and a sheer drop at that, and a steep up-grade for five solid miles! In places it was a very beautiful road, winding up between forested growths of redwoods and giant conifers. As I nursed the Paragon up that road at fifteen miles an hour I had plenty of time for reflection.
Back to questions again. Out of the general muddle these had resolved themselves into certain distinct and coherent queries; and they fell under two heads:
John Balliol: 1. Whom had he been afraid of, and why? Unknown. 2. What had brought him to suicide? Not poverty, certainly. 3. What had he done with my checks? When they were cashed I would know. 4. Why had he needed the money by a certain night—the night he was to meet M. J. B., the night he killed himself? Unknown.
M. J. B., the Fair Unknown: 1. What was her connection with Balliol? Mystery. 2. Did his suicide hinge on his meeting with her? Problematical. 3. She had said: "They killed him!" Were "they" microbes or gunmen? Unknowable. 4. Why her warning against my going to the ranch?
My answer to that final query was: "Because she liked me!" It was a satisfactory answer, too. It made me glow happily. I had always been a sedate bachelor, but I must say that M. J. B. was the most attractive girl T had ever met, and to find her interested in me was, to say the least, very pleasing.
My only regret was that I had left her in San Francisco. I thought of going back to the city as soon as I had inspected my ranch—
Just then I observed that my radiator was boiling, what with the grade and the hot sun: and ahead of me was a spring beside the road, with a turn-out. I halted the car at the turn-out, baled cold water into the radiator with a rusty tin can, and sat down to smoke and lei my engine cool off. It was a cool and pleasant spot, under lofty pines.
I was just knocking out my pipe when I heard voices and the creaking of a vehicle. Around the sharp bend ahead came a horse and buggy, the latter occupied by three men. All three carried rifles and knives, and beneath the buggy trotted a big hound. They nodded to me and drove to the spring, letting the horse have a mouthful. Obviously, they were natives.
"Good afternoon," I returned their greetings. "Why the artillery? Sheriff's posse?"
They grinned and laughed.
"Deer season opened yesterday," one of them replied. "Thought you'd come up from the city for the same reason."
"Not I," was my answer. "Plenty of deer around here?"
"That's what they say—but there ain't none when we want to get 'em. Most of the folks in Lakeport are out, from the Chink laundryman to the sheriff."
They drove on down the trail, but as they went I could see that they were looking back and making observations—probably on my car. Until they passed out of sight at the next curve they were still staring backward and discussing something: either me or the car. I took for granted that it was the car, and it was.
The deer season did not interest me particularly, because I have no taste for hunting. Cursing the foot-thick dust in the road, I got into the car and went on.
At last, to my deep relief, I attained the summit of the divide, where the toll-gate was located. I paid my dollar fifty and had a magnificent view of Clear Lake in the distance amid the hills, then started downward. The descent was steep enough and winding, but three miles of it brought me to the floor of the valley, in a region of jackpine and brush and hogbacks.
And. as I turned a quick curve, there before me in the road stood two deer—does. For the fraction of an instant they gazed at me, then they flung away. Like brown streaks they went over the nearest hill and were gone. Instinctively I halted the car, gazing after the graceful creatures. A moment later I shoved my foot toward the starter, but I was still staring at the hillside: instead of touching the starter, my foot touched the accelerator—and touched it with a particular pet corn. I smothered an oath and leaned far forward to clutch my aching toe, for the stab of pain was acute. And, as I leaned over thus, a bullet came exactly where I had been sitting, at about the height my head had been.
I know it was a bullet, because I heard it and because the effect was terrific. It plumped through the rear of the top, on one side; it passed above me, and its shrill song was lost in a rattling smash of glass as it took the top half of my wind-shield into slivers. Then came the crack of a rifle to prove that it was a bullet.
If I had not happened to lean over, and to lean over pretty far, that bullet would have finished me—sure! My first instinct was to start the car and get away: then I checked the impulse and slid out to terra firma. Some one not very far off was shooting recklessly, and it made me angry.
Hopping out in the road, I stared around. Naturally, I saw nobody. If any hunter had mistaken that maroon top for a deer, he was not advertising his mistake to me.
"Shove fer home, Balliol!" cried out a rough voice. "Shove quick, or he'll give ye a closer one!"
The voice came from somewhere behind and to the left of the car. Balliol! I was being mistaken for Balliol—and there was no mistake being made!
As this astounding fact percolated to my brain, I wasted no time asking questions, but climbed into the car, started her up, and rolled away from there in a hurry. Balliol! Who in the name of goodness was trying to assassinate John Balliol?
In that rough voice from the hillside had been a deadly earnestness which had impelled me to flight; it brought home to me in a flash that I was up against something serious. Under the blue sky, under the hot August sunlight, the thing was extremely matter of fact. I thought again of the young man who had been jabbing my tire, and of the warning administered by M. J. B. The sequence was pretty plain!
Absurd as it seemed, this land-cruise of mine was actually taking me into perilous waters.
It was the fault of the car, of course: people thought that Balliol was driving it. As I rattled across a bridge and entered upon excellent dirt roads, the realization cheered me immensely. Balliol had admitted that he had gotten into trouble up here of a private nature. Well, the minute his enemies discovered that I was not John Balliol, but Yorke Desmond. I would be left alone! Yet why, in such case, had the girl warned me? I gave it up.
With a suddenness for which I was unprepared, Lakeport jumped into my immediate foreground. I had anticipated a county seat of some importance, but I found it a village struggling along the lake-shore, with a single main street and outlying residences. The valley had been settled by Missourians back in the fifties—and they were still here.
Presently I descried a charming square and court-house, with a fine new Carnegie Library down by the lake front. Except for a couple of docks and some moored launches and houseboats, the lake front consisted of reed-beds and was not beautiful. But the lake itself, with the mountains opposite, was magnificent!
Volcanic action had done its work well in this place, and it was the sweetest spot I had seen in California. Once the town was wakened from its sleepy repose, it would be a second Geneva.
As the deed to my ranch had been sent on here for recording, I drove direct to the court-house, left the car, and walked up to the county recorder's office on the right of the main building. There I found everything in order and awaiting me. I inquired for the sheriff, meaning to set him on the trail of my near-assassin, but found that he was hunting deer. So was every one else in town who could get away, even as my hunter-informants had stated.
I walked half a block to the bank, with whom my Los Angeles bank had corresponded. The bank was closed, for it was after four o'clock, but I telephoned and obtained admission. I presented my credentials to the banker, an extremely cordial chap, and asked directions to my property. He showed me exactly where my ranch lay and outlined the road.
"Tell me one thing confidentially." I inquired: "do you know why Balliol left here? Do you know anything against that property—any reason why I shouldn't have bought it?"
"Certainly not!" he answered with evident surprise. "Balliol left because of his health, I believe, and for no other reason. The property is absolutely good, and a give-away at the price, Mr. Desmond! You got a good thing."
He was in earnest, beyond a question. Hut as I sought the street again I found myself wishing that he had phrased it in some other fashion than "because of his health."
After my late experiences, it had an ominous sound!