The House of Skulls/Chapter 7
I MAKE DISCOVERIES.
TO see me sauntering along with a gun under my arm, seemed to cause her some alarm. And, too, she seemed very self-repressive; her greeting was cold. Then, with a quick change of mood, she smiled.
"Are you going hunting like every one else, Mr. Desmond?"
"I am, Miss Balliol," I responded.
An adorable flush stole into her cheeks, but her blue eyes did not falter.
"I must apologize for that," she said simply. "It was abominable! But at first, I—I said that I was a friend—"
"And you turned out to be a sister," I cut in. "Please, Miss Balliol, don't explain; I figured it out for myself later on, and I understand perfectly. But, if it is not an impertinence, may I ask what on earth you're doing here? This is an outlandish place in which to meet any one particularly a person of whom one has thought so much and often."
Her gaze dwelt upon me thoughtfully, searchingly, even suspiciously.
"To be candid. Mr. Desmond. I hadn't the least intention of confiding in you," she stated coolly. "But I can't help believing that you are honest—"
"Oh! Who said that I wasn't?"
"You implied as much—by buying my brother's property here."
"Thanks," I murmured, feeling pretty well dazed.
"I am going to Dawson's farm for a short visit," she went on. "If you care to see me there, I'll be very glad to explain matters fully. I think the up-lake launch is about due."
I did not know anything about the up-lake launch, but I took chances.
"No," I said positively. "She ran on a mud bar this morning and is stuck with a broken propeller. If you want to get to Dawson's, will you let me take you in my launch? There's not another to be hired. I assure you. Besides, it will let us talk on the way."
I have a suspicion that she knew that I was lying; but if so, she did not mind. At all events, she accepted my invitation. As she had only her suit-case, we were chugging away from Lakeport inside of ten minutes. She added to the mystery by stating that Dawson's took boarders, and that, while she was totally unknown here, she had determined to pay a visit lo the lake on business. I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable.
"There are several things to straighten out, Miss Balliol." I observed. "First, your remarks about my honesty. Then, if you remember, when I told you about your "brother, you exclaimed that 'they' had killed him—"
She whitened a little.
"Please!" She checked me swiftly. "Let me take things in order. Mr. Desmond. I should not have made that remark about your honesty; it requires another apology from me. Now, let me get these things out."
She opened her handbag and began to look over papers. Meantime, she went on to give me some idea of her brother's past life, and of her own.
Balliol, senior, who had been a wealthy lawyer in Boston, had died suddenly, six years previously. He had left few resources except a family residence near Boston, and two small, undeveloped ranches here in Lake County. Martha Balliol had at once fitted herself for a position as stenographer, remaining at home with her mother. John Balliol, a boy nearly through Harvard, had come to California and had set to work developing the two ranches on Clear Lake.
He had worked like a Trojan, too. As the girl told me of what he had accomplished lone-handed, I felt a pang of pity for him. Two years before this present time, he had sold one of the ranches for a handsome sum. He had sent a large part of the money home to relieve conditions there and pay off the mortgage on the family home. Then, meaning to bring his mother and sister to Clear Lake, he had built his house on the twenty-acre ranch, and had built it well. The work had taken him nearly a year, for he had done most of it with his own hands.
During that time, however, some trouble had developed. To balance this, he had made money off his crops, and had ordered his Paragon car, specially built. What with one thing and another, he had spent every red cent that he could raise, being confident of the future.
"Then," went on the girl, "the trouble increased. What it was, I don't know: I can't find out! He only wrote about it once, and then he sent this photograph. It explains itself, so far as I can discover. Jack must have made an enemy of this man, and took his picture while they were having an argument. That was like Jack—he had no lack of nerve."
"Or of nerves either." I added to myself, as I took the letter and picture which she handed me.
The picture was a kodak snapshot of a very angry young man shaking his fist at the camera. There was no doubt about his anger; a snarling, venomous rage was stamped all over him! As I recognized his face, however, an exclamation escaped me: for, beyond all question, it was the same swarthy young man who had tried to cut my tires at McGray's Tavern
"What's the matter?" broke out Miss Balliol. "You know him?"
"I've seen him," I commented. "Tell you about it in a minute."
Beneath the picture was written: "John Talkso registering rage."
Taking the letter, I read a marked paragraph. It dealt with the same John Talkso, a name whose very queerness made me wonder what nationality the young man could be. Balliol had not explained this, but had written:
Am having more trouble with the individual whose picture I enclose. However, I hope to obviate further trouble with him. The whole thing is so silly that one hesitates to write any explanation. Don't worry about it.
That was finely indefinite, was it not? It was.
"About six months ago." resumed Miss Balliol, "we got into terrible trouble, and I was afraid to write Jack about it. because we were trying so hard not to increase his worries. Mother was very ill and we had to mortgage the house again; then a private bank failed—a bank in which father had left us a block of stock. The stock had never been any good, and then on the failure of the bank we had to pay a tremendous assessment to secure the depositors—and that finished everything for us. Mother died suddenly. When it was all over, I wrote Jack what had happened. Then I went back to work."
I did not hasten her recital, and she paused for a few moments. We were chugging merrily down the lake, and the heat of the sun was relieved by a cool breeze which brought stray locks of Martha Balliol's hair about her face in distracting fashion.
"It was a hard blow to Jack, of course," she went on. "Now, what has happened I don't know and can't discover, Mr. Desmond. He wired me a month ago to meet him in Los Angeles at once—he wrote little or nothing in the interim. I came to Los Angeles and he did not turn up: I could not get into touch with him at all. Then, one morning, he called me up on the telephone and told me to catch the night train for San Francisco, and to meet him at the station an hour before the train left.
"I felt that something terrible was happening, but he gave no explanation. When we met at the station, he was a nervous wreck, and he was frightfully mysterious about everything. He told me to go on to San Francisco and that I'd hear from him en route."
"How did you recognize his car from the train?" I broke in. "You'd never seen it."
"No, but he had sent us the colored pictures when he had ordered it built, and he had sent photographs of it after he had received it—it's such a distinctive car that no one could possibly mistake it!"
That was true enough, as I had discovered.
"Well, that night at the station," she pursued, "Jack gave me an envelope and said to open it after the train had started; he made me promise him. Then he kissed me good-by and said not to worry, that he had fixed everything all right for me. That's the last I saw of him, Mr. Desmond. Later—on the train—I opened his letter and found your check to him, with this note."
She handed me a note in Balliol's writing, which read as follows:
The game's up as far as I'm concerned; you'll hear about it soon enough. They were too much for me at the ranch. They drove me out, to put it bluntly. If I hadn't had too much cursed pride, I might have done otherwise; but I fought them, and now they'll get me sure if I go back.Besides this. I've got in bad with another deal. If I go through with it, then you'll lose everything, and I can't face it. I guess I'm pretty well broken down, sis. I've been a fool, that's all. There's only one way to secure to you what can be secured, and I've taken it. I've sold the ranch for ten thousand, which is far below its value, and enclose the check. Cash it immediately in San Francisco. Good-by, dear little sis, and make the best of it.
That was on the face of it a cowardly letter, considering that an hour later Balliol had killed himself; but I could not help remembering all that he must have endured and fought for in the past years.
"Still we haven't solved the secret of the mysterious 'they,'" I observed, "except that John Talkso, whoever he is, is concerned in it. This letter, too. speaks of another deal—vague and mysterious as ever. Miss Balliol, do you have any idea why brother did what he did in Los Angeles?"
She shook her head. His suicide was still a mystery to her.
I told her about my encounter with John Talkso, and with the shot from the hills. She had warned me in San Francisco merely on impulse, for she had felt that there was something vaguely but distinctly hostile about that ranch; also, she had been distrustful of me, for she had imagined that I might have been concerned in some conspiracy to beat down the value of the ranch and get it cheap. There is the contradiction of woman for you!
Well, inside of twenty minutes we were on a solid footing of friendship. I managed to convince her as to my entire ignorance of the trouble; and I could see that the poor girl had been driven nearly wild by the mystery which had shrouded Balliol's latter days.
As we drew up the lake. I suggested to Martha Balliol that she might care to stop at the ranch and look over the house.
"There may be books or other personal belongings of your brother's that you'd like to keep," I explained. "Really, Miss Balliol, I'd feel much relieved if you'd go through his effects and take everything that you'd like to have. I've felt very badly over the deal, because I've seemed to take undue advantage of his circumstances; and I feel as though some reparation and expiation were due you."
Later, I thought, I'd add at least five thousand to the purchase price of the ranch, but of course this was not the moment to broach such a matter. Since it was early in the afternoon, Miss Balliol thanked me and consented to stop in at the ranch, for Dawson's lay just across the bay and we could run over there in ten minutes.
Accordingly, we ran in to the dock, and on this occasion there was no red flare in the skull-sockets. Nor did I say anything to her about the skulls, for the subject was not a very pleasant one to bring before the girl's mind. I was careful to steer her up the hill and then around to the side of the house, and as we reached it, I heard a bell buzzing away.
"Hello!" I ejaculated. "I ordered the telephone unplugged this morning—the instrument was in, of course. Some one's calling to see if the line's working, maybe. Go right in and make yourself at home, Miss Balliol—I'll answer the call."
The telephone was in the kitchen, and a moment later I was at the instrument.
"Yorke Desmond speaking" I said. "Hello?"
It was my friend the banker at Lakeport speaking; and what he had to say was one little earful—it certainly was! What he wanted from me was the address of John Balliol, for no one in these parts seemed to know that Balliol was dead. I wanted to know why he wanted it.
Being a banker, he was mighty hard to pin down and hold on the mat; but at last I made him cough up the information. It appeared that some time previously Balliol had gone on the note of a friendly rancher to the tune of six thousand dollars. Fire had wiped out the rancher's property—this was over in High Valley—and the man himself had broken both legs in an accident; and it was up to John Balliol to make good the six thousand, now overdue.
"What date was it due?" I demanded. The banker told me. That note had become due the day after I had bought Balliol ranch!
"You listen here." I said, thinking fast. "I'll come in to Lakeport to-morrow and see you: and I'll make good that sum. Savvy? Never mind my reasons. I owe Balliol that money, so I'll explain further to-morrow."
I rang off and dropped into the nearest chair.
Light on the subject? I should say so! This was the "other deal" to which Balliol had referred; and he sure had been a fool to indorse the other man's note. He knew it, also, and knew that to make it good would wipe him out. That was why he had given up the fight.
He had sold out his ranch to me at a give-away price, in order to secure the ten thousand to his sister, he had given her the money, then had killed himself. He had left no estate whatever. Whether or not the law could reach that ten thousand, I did not know; at all events, he had, of course, figured that it was safe to Martha. The banker had told me that Baliiol had sent back one thousand from Los Angeles—the thousand which t had given him for his car, of course.
This explained Balliol's haste to get the money. It did not explain the enmity which had existed between Balliol and this John Talkso, but of that I look little heed at the moment. Instead of giving Martha Balliol the extra five thousand, I would pay it over to the bank, clear Balliol's name, and square myself with the dead man, as I looked at it. Martha Balliol need never know of it.
I had figured this out to my own satisfaction as the best possible course, when from the front of the house I heard a cry, followed by a scream. Then I remembered that cursed pterodactyl, for the first time!