The House of Skulls/Chapter 6



I ASKED Dawson about big birds, but he l said there was nothing larger than a buzzard around the lake; and presently ] went home again. The rest of the day passed quietly, and after writing a few letters, chiefly on business, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the just.

I was well satisfied with my new home, and for the coming six months my partner in New York could run the decorating business without my aid, so there was nothing to worry me.

The next morning I was up and off early, this time in the canoe, and got in an hour's fishing before sunrise. Although it was distinctly the wrong season for fish, I trolled down along the shore off the reed-beds, and picked up two fine bass, both over three pounds.

About sunrise I headed for home, well content with results. I wanted to visit Lakeport this morning, chiefly to see if there was any news from my Los Angeles bank about those checks. That Balliol had struggled along in poverty on his ranch, as the newspaper account had said, was quite absurd; that he had died in poverty, with eleven thousand dollars in his pocket, was entirely nonsensical.

Across the little bay from my place I paused suddenly. I had already learned from neighbor Dawson that Balliol had obtained his skull-decoration from relics of the red men, so their gruesomeness was removed in some measure. But—that did not explain what I now saw.

As it chanced, I had found a pair of field-glasses in a niche in the cobbled chimney, and had brought them along. Now I raised and focused on my house: rather, on the front wall under the veranda; where the skulls were located. To my uneasy surprise, I found my eyesight corroborated. The eyes of those six skulls were gleaming and flaming with a brilliant crimson!

Optical delusion? Not a bit of it. Reflections from the rising sun on the concrete which filled the skulls to the bone-level? Not a bit of it; such reflections would not come in a scarlet flame from the eyes of each and every skull. They were reflecting the lurid sunrise squarely at me, of course; but those hollow eye-sockets were filled with red fire.

I dropped the glasses, seized the paddle, and spurted for home, savagely determined to run down the uncanny hoodoo which had settled on this house of mine. As I drew nearer to my landing. I could see those red skull-eyes flaming more and more distinctly. There was no optical illusion whatever.

Then I was in the boathouse beneath the bluff, and of course the house was shut from view. Making fast the canoe, I paused to pick up a broken oar to serve as club, then ran up the path. Puffing, I gained the bluff in front of the house.

"Confound it!" I exclaimed blankly. "Am I going off my head?"

The crimson flame was gone from the skull-eyes. There was not a sign of it. In the sockets the white cement came close to the surface, and there could be no mistake.

I was completely taken aback by this startling development.

Of course, I told myself, there must be an explanation. Perhaps the sand in the cement was glassy, and at certain angles reflected the sun—that would be plausible in a single instance, but it would not do for twelve eye-sockets. Whatever the explanation might be. it was certainly beyond my comprehension. Then, again, the color of those eye-sockets had been a distinct blood hue.

As I stood there staring at the cement wall. I jumped suddenly. From the kitchen of the house came a banging crash, and I remembered a double boiler I had set out on the stove. Some one—or something—was in the kitchen, and had knocked it over!

Swearing under my breath, I leaped to the veranda and ran through the house. Now, I glanced at every room in my course, and I can swear that the house was absolutely empty. So was the kitchen when I reached it. Yet by the stove, whence it had obviously been knocked by some direct agency, the double boiler lay on the floor, a pool of water surging from it, and running directly to the stove from the doorway—but not back again—was a single fine of muddy tracks. They were the tracks of the pterodactyl!

I was staggered, right enough. A prehistoric monster with a wing-spread of twenty-five feet does not hide easily in a bare kitchen; yet I looked around as if expecting to see the brute before me. Then I rushed to the windows. The yard was absolutely empty. The monster might be somewhere in the encircling trees: it might have flown out and down to the lake while I was coming through the house; but, by the gods, it had been here. Those muddy tracks on the floor reassured me. certified to my sanity and common sense.

Hastening outside. I looked around. The barn, which served as garage, was empty. I could discover no hole about the house where any such beast could hide. I flung my club whirring amid the nearest, trees, and strode back into the house.

"Damn it!" I remarked as I set about cooking my two fish. "I'm going to get a shotgun and settle this mystery. I don't believe in hedonists' dreams coming true; and as for this flying dragon, I'll settle him with buckshot if I get one crack at him."

The red eyes of the skulls had paled into insignificance before this mysterious visitant, and I forgot the lesser matter for the time being. That double boiler knocked off the stove, and those muddy tracks, settled the pterodactyl once and for all as a living creature, and I meant to go after him. I only regretted that I must have missed him by less than a minute.

My second day in my new home was beginning in a way to make me realize why Balliol had come to Los Angeles with the jumps riding him.

An hour after these things happened I had closed up the house and was chugging merrily away from the boat-house in my launch. Navigation was no difficult problem here: I merely had to head straight up the lake, which I did. The voyage was monotonous, as are all launch trips in ordinary craft, and as I throbbed along the wind-ruffled water the memory of M. J. B. recurred to me with a twinge of self-irritation that I had not even her name.

Why had she warned me? And who was the dark-complected chap who had cut at my tires back at McGray's Tavern? And who had fired that shot at me? These were perplexing problems, but M. J. B. was more perplexing yet. I once again pictured her face before my mental vision, the trim sweetness of her, the capable manner which she wore, the energetic womanhood that lay in her blue eyes—

"Hang it!" I exclaimed. "I'm getting romantic—it won't do, Yorke Desmond! You'll never see that girl again, so forget her."

Easier said than done. I was still thinking of her as I tied up to the dock at Lakeport and walked up-town past the library to the main street. And within five minutes I was thinking of her again.

The telegraph-office was a dingy little place, messages being received here by phone. When I inquired for any wires, the young lady in charge handed me an envelope. I found it to be a night-letter from the cashier of my bank in Los Angeles. It read as follows:

Check for ten thousand, cashed yesterday First National, San Francisco, returned here this afternoon. Indorsements John Balliol, Martha J. Balliol. No further developments suicide. Good luck with ranch.

The ulterior meaning of this message gradually percolated through my brain, and I wandered forth to a bench on the courthouse square and sank to rest.

The check had been cashed the same morning I left San Francisco, and it had been cashed by Martha J. Balliol—no other than my M. J. B.! No wonder she had seemed to know my name, when she must have borne in her pocket-book that check of mine! Balliol had given it to her the previous night, just before his suicide; so much was evident.

But—she had been Balliol's sister, then! Why had she not admitted her identity? Perhaps she would have done so, I argued, but for the news of her brother's death. After that, to find herself traveling in her brother's car, with the man who had bought that car and the ranch to boot, must have disconcerted her immensely at first. And after telling me that she was a friend of Balliol. she probably had lacked the nerve to confess her white lie and give her real name. Perhaps she had merely considered it unnecessary.

I fell relieved. Folly though it undoubtedly was, I had indulged a secret conviction that M. J. B. was Balliol's sweetheart; now she proved to be his sister, but although this fact afforded great relief, it none the less gave me new anxiety I have always noticed that girls, especially very charming and attractive girls like Martha Balliol, are all too seldom free and heart-whole. Somebody else always seems to get acquainted with them first. That was one reason that I was still a bachelor!

But never had I met any one like Martha Balliol. The more I thought about her, the more I felt like a fool for having left her in San Francisco as I had done. At last, realizing that I had bungled everything very sadly, and that it was now close to noon and I was hungry, I got up and sauntered toward the bank seeking information. On the way, however, I passed a hardware store, and bethought me of the pterodactyl. There was an attractive display of guns in the window, so I entered and besought the proprietor to sell me a shotgun.

"Want a license, I s'pose?" he inquired amiably. "I'm the game warden here, y' know. I dunno why you're goin' after deer with a shotgun—"

"I'm not," I rejoined. "I'm going after pterodactyls, and there's no closed season on them!"

He rubbed his chin, and with a mystified air agreed with me. "Well, I reckon not. Say, you the man just bought the Balliol ranch?"

"Yes. Desmond is my name."

"Stark's mine. Glad to meet ye. Seen any ghosts around there yet?"

"Ghosts?" I met his eye, and he chuckled. "What do you mean?"

"Well, that place is built right close to where the old Injun chiefs is buried, and I hear tell they's ghosts around there at times."

"Nothing doing," I rejoined cheerfully. "Not so far, anyhow. Where's the best place to get a meal in town?"

"Well, ye might go several places, but if I was you, I'd go up to Mrs. Sinjon's, back o' the court-house."

He directed me, and leaving the shotgun until after luncheon, I went to the boarding-house back of the town square.

Ghosts, eh? That was a new angle. Had the natives played unpleasant jokes upon John Balliol, because of his skull decoration? No; the very notion was silly. Grave, stolid farmer folks like Dawson were not given to such trivial foolishness. Besides, Balliol's affrighted nerves must have come from months and years of fear, not days or weeks. And jokes do not extend over months and years.

I found the boarding-house simple and thoroughly delightful, the cooking wholesome, the company very mixed, ranging from a stage driver to an itinerant preacher. It was a warm noon, and conversation flagged. I was just finishing my meal, when, in the intermittent and broken-off speech of farming men, two workmen at the other end of the table spoke.

"Heard young Balliol's sister come in this mornin'," said one.

"Uhuh," said the other, and looked toward the stage driver. "Good looker, Mac?"

The stage driver glanced up. "Got him beat all hollow," he observed. "Come in on the morning train. Going up the lake, I reckon."

I paid for my meal and departed, feeling a bit dizzy. Balliol's sister! What the deuce was she doing here?

Galling for my gun at the hardware store, I arranged about mail at the post-office, then went down to the dock. And out on the dock all alone, she was standing!