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CHAPTER V.

I DISCOVER SKULLS

I STOPPED at the hotel that night and the next morning departed to my ranch. It lay about twenty miles from town, by road, as I had to get around Mount Kenocti to reach it. By water it would be much closer. The ranch lay at the edge of the lake, and Balliol had done his clearing with the eye of an artist. The house itself was built of rough-hewn timber and cement, and was admirably situated at the edge of a small bluff over the water: about it stood gigantic white oaks, while the orchards ran back on the other side of the road.

Although I had half expected more excitement on my trip. I met with nothing untoward.

In Lakeport I had loaded up with camping supplies, a bit of forethought which came in handy. As I ran down the side road to the house and opened up the gates I was filled with delighted anticipation; with half an eye I could see that the place was a gem of beauty! The gates open, I ran the car inside, then shut the gates again. I was in my own domain at last.

Fortunately, I had telephoned the electrical people on the previous afternoon, so that I found the electricity turned on—the place was on the power-line, which in California gives right to the juice, whether it be in a desert or a mountain cañon.

Of course, one expects to get something for ten thousand cash: but as I opened up the house and saw what things were like, I was astounded.

Balliol must have laughed in his sleeve at finding me to be an interior decorator. The place was furnished—and literally crammed—with things which, in New York, would have been beyond price. They had come over with the Missourians in prairie schooners, and Balliol had bought them at various farms for a song.

There were two rosewood pianos, one an importation from Holland; several ancient clocks, with original glass, in running order; the chairs were fiddlebacks of crotch-mahogany: there were two satinwood cabinets, genuine Sheratons. And the beds! Each of the two bedrooms was furnished complete in walnut: not the burl walnut of late Victorian days, but the old carved French walnut of the earliest period. All in all, that furniture was a delight to the heart.

On the more practical side, the place was ready for use, from the bedding to the electric stove in the kitchen. By the time I had investigated everything and opened up the house, the morning was nearly gone, and it was about eleven o'clock when I descended the short path that ran down the bluff to the lakeside. Here was a boat-house, with a short dock beside it: when I had gained access to the boat-house by means of Balliol's keys. I found a launch of small size but sturdy construction, and a fine Morris canoe. Fishing-tackle strung the walls, and in one corner was a drum half filled with gasoline.

I took out my pipe and sat down in the launch. Not only was everything here which Balliol had described, but more—much more. To think of what I had dropped into astounded me. It was much too good to be true!

The acres of fruit-trees, which must be worth a good sum as income property, could no doubt be rented to neighbor ranchers. I resolved to see about it at once. All I wanted was this house and what was in it—no gentleman's ranch for mine, but a gentleman's country home.

My ideas had changed since seeing the place. Brought face to face with pear and walnut trees, as it were, I lost enthusiasm: fishing, tinkering with old furniture, and painting suited my lazy inclination a good deal better.

"I'll get something to eat," I said, knocking out my pipe into the water, "then I'll try out the launch and visit the neighbors, and see about renting the orchard. It has a crop on right now, so it ought to be a good thing."

I trudged back up the path, and when I reached the house I noticed a curious thing. The foundations were of cement, and a low cement wall-foundation ran the full length of the front veranda. There were a number of curious projections from that cement, and when I came up to the wall and examined them I found that they were human skulls!

The gruesome find rather staggered me. They were real skulls, set in the cement wall so as to project three or four inches, and they were in good condition. I am not superstitious, and I had no objections to this scheme of decorations on personal grounds: but it struck me that Balliol had carried his search for novelty just a bit too far.

"It's only a step from beaux arts to bizarre." I reflected. "and my friend Balliol seems to have taken the step. Where did he get 'em. I wonder? Two—four—six—an even half-dozen! Wonder if he put any more inside? I didn't notice them—"

I hastened inside the house, my thoughts on the big hearth and chimney of cobbles; but I confess that to my relief I found it was quite lacking in further remains. All the skulls were outside.

With that, I paid little more attention to the matter, practically dismissing it from my mind—and for excellent reasons I passed out on the veranda, meaning to go around to the car at the side of the house, and get my provisions: but at the first step I came to a dead halt, with a cold chill at my throat.

Upon the cement floor of the veranda were wet tracks; they began at the door and ended abruptly in the middle of the floor.

Yet the veranda was empty.

Those were not the tracks of a man. Something in their very appearance sent queer horror rippling through me, sent my gaze quickly over my shoulder at the empty house.

I had been gone not twenty minutes; these tracks were still wet. and whatever had made them must have come from the lake while I was down there.

Undeniably shaken by the mystery of it, I rushed back through the house to the back door. Absolutely nothing was in sight; I ran around the house, past the car, and saw nothing.

At the edge of the bluff I could see the shore-line below and it was deserted.

I came back to the veranda and stared again at those tracks now fast drying. They frightened me; there was something about them vaguely unnatural! And never in my life had I seen anything like them. Of course, I had opened the wide veranda windows, and a bird might have walked in, then flown out and away—

But, a bird of this size? A bird from the lake? There was no other water, except in the well behind the house, from which the house itself was supplied by an electric motor.

And were those the tracks of any bird alive? I doubted it. The size was immense; the shape was that of a small central foot, with four immense toes—and beyond these the marks of long claws, unless I were mistaken!

What was the thing—monster or hallucination? I tried to argue that I was self-deceived, and I failed miserably. There were the wet prints on the cement before my eyes, slowly drying away! They could not have been made more than a few moments before I returned from the boat-house.

I felt suddenly prickly cold and very uncomfortable, and turned into the house. To go ahead with luncheon was, for the moment, impossible. I went into the living-room, and, as I passed one of the two pianos, I suddenly descried a book lying open upon it.

I paused to glance at the book; to my astonishment I saw upon the printed page a cut of the exact print which I had seen on the veranda. Beneath the illustration was the legend:

Fossil imprint of Pterodactyl, Marsh Collection, Vale College.

The realization smote me like a blow, as I leaned over the book and read. Balliol had left that book open here, of course! Balliol had seen the same prints—or had he seen the thing itself? Had he seen the living actual pterodactyl, the creature that had become extinct when the world began, the flying dragon of myth and legend? He had seen the tracks, at any rate, just as I had seen them.

This proved that I was under no delusion about those prints. But—was the thing credible? It was not. The bowl of this lake was an ancient volcano, the whole valley was of volcanic creation; mineral springs abounded: a few miles distant were quicksilver-mines; the water in my own well was mineralized. Now, I had read stories about prehistoric monsters coming back to the world via extinct volcanoes and bottomless lakes, and so forth—stories, that is, which were purely fiction. Had such a thing really come about here in Lake County, California, upon my own ranch?

"Not by a damn sight!" I exclaimed, throwing the book across the room. "Balliol was frightfully nervous; I'm not. He may have been frightened out of here by his imagination—but I'm going to be shown!"

Then and there I dismissed the unnatural fears which had shaken me. If the creature existed, I would shoot it; if the whole affair were one of those queer mental quirks which come to all men. if the prints were caused by some natural agency not at the moment obvious to my deduction, well and good.

I went around to the car and hauled in my provisions. The electricity was on in the house, and I got the electric range working and managed to make myself a fairly decent meal. At times I found myself desirous of casting quick glances over my shoulder, at window or doors, but I repressed it firmly. I was not going to get into Balliol's condition if I could help it.

Lunch over, I dragged a rocker to the veranda and enjoyed a smoke, with the beauties of the lake outspread before me. By reason of a deep inundation of the lake-shore, the bluff on which my house was built faced almost due east; opposite me, across the bight, I saw the roofs of a farm-house, doubtless my nearest neighbor in that direction.

It occurred to me that if I wanted to talk business, the noon hour would be an excellent time to do it.

So I went down to the boat-house again, opened up the water doors, and filled the boat's tank with gas. She was in good shape, and almost with the first turn of the wheel the spark caught. A moment later I was chugging out into the lake, feeling intensely pleased with myself, and I headed directly down to my neighbor's dock among the tules or reeds.

The neighbor himself I found sitting on his front porch. He was a brawny, bearded man of stolidly slow speech, Henry Dawson by name. I introduced myself as the new owner of Balliol's ranch, and was in turn introduced to Mrs. Dawson and two strapping Dawson boys. They all eyed me with frank curiosity.

I lost no time in setting forth my business. Dawson, like all farmers, was content to let me talk as long as I would. When I cautiously broached the subject of renting my land, however, he nodded his head in slow assent.

"Ought to rent," he stated, as though he thought just the opposite. "Maybe. Don't know as folks would want the house, though."

"I want that myself." I said. "What I want to rent is the fruit land. Could you handle it?"

At this direct assault, he hemmed and hawed. He was a very decent chap, however, and when I made it clear that I was not after extortionate rentals he came around quickly. I could see that the house had killed the place, for some reason.

"Just what's the matter with that house?" I demanded, while he was making up his mind about rental. "Is it those skulls in the front wall?"

"Blamed if I know," he rejoined slowly. "Reckon it's that, much as anything. Gives folks a creepy feelin'."

"Why didn't Balliol get along there?"

He gave me a slow stare. "Get along? Why, I guess he got along all right. He was kind o' queer in his ways, ye' might say; but he got along right well, Mr. Desmond."

"Where on earth did he get those skulls, though?"

"Dug 'em up right on the ground, I heard. He done all the work himself on that house, except what he hired done. Guess it was an old Injun cemetery; there was a heap of Injuns here in the old days. Quite a bunch here yet. They sent 'em to a reservation, but the poor devils got homesick and were 'lowed back, Right prosperous farmers, some of 'em, to-day. Well, about that orchard. I reckon we can manage it if we settle on the right terms."

We settled, then and there, at terms which were satisfactory to both of us.