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CHAPTER IX.

I MEET JOHN TALKSO.

IN plain sight of me, walking out across the open space toward my house, was a man. He carried a bucket in one hand, and a basket in the other hand. These he set down at the veranda steps, and then turned, scrutinizing the lake and shore. His face showed clearly.

A low word escaped me as I watched. I recognized that face on the instant; he was no other than the enemy of John Balliol, the man whom I had met at McGray's Tavern—the man with the queer name of John Talkso! An instant later he had vanished inside the house.

"Now," I said to myself, "here's one mystery about to be solved in a hurry!"

A moment longer I waited. Talkso appeared again, stooped over the basket he had been carrying, and then went around to the front of my house: what he did there, I could not see. He reappeared, took up both bucket and basket, and went into the house.

I started for the house with the gun under my arm. both barrels loaded.

When I got safely over the gate and into the yard, I knew that I had my man this time; there was going to be an explanation! To judge from his attire when I had seen him at McGray's Tavern, this Talkso had money—and he was going to settle what he owed me, chiefly in the matter of tires. What he was doing in my house was another thing. And if he had fired that bullet at me from the hills—

At that juncture I heard the telephone ringing. The kitchen windows were open, and I stole toward the back entrance. An instant later, I heard a man speaking at the telephone; Talkso was answering the call! His infernal impudence made me chuckle, for at the instrument be must be standing with his back to the door. He was playing directly into my hand!

"He's not here—out fishing." I heard him say. Somebody, obviously, was asking for me. "Who's this? Oh, hello! This you, Sheriff West?"

There was a moment of silence, during which time I gained the hack door and paused. Talkso was standing at the telephone, right enough, entirely unconscious of my presence.

"The hell you say!" he exclaimed suddenly, a snarling intonation in his voice. "None of your cursed business what I'm doing here, Mr. West! What? You come out here if you want to—I'll be gone by then."

Again he paused, and again made angry response to the sheriff.

"Nonsense! You've nothing on me—don't try bluffing me, Mr. West! You can't do it. That shot? Go ahead and tell Desmond all you want! You know damned well you can't prove anything on me, and I know it too! I'll have Desmond out of here inside of a week—oh, I won't eh? Much you know about it!"

With a snarling oath, he slammed the receiver on the hook.

As he did so, I pushed open the screen door and stepped inside. Talkso caught the squeak of the door, and whirled about like a cat.

"I guess the sheriff was right. Talkso," I said cordially, over the sights of my shotgun. "Hoist your hands—thank you; that's the way it's always done in the films. So the sheriff's coming out here, eh? Good thing. He can take you back with him, unless we come to terms."

Talkso stood perfectly motionless, his hands slightly raised. The surprise of my appearance had confounded him; but now passionate rage convulsed his swarthy features, and in the snaky blackness of his eyes flickered a scornful hatred. The contempt expressed in his eyes rendered me uneasy.

"You!" he uttered, flinging the word at me in almost inarticulate fury. "What d' you think you're doing, anyway?"

"I don't think," I assured him. "I'm perfectly confidently about it, my friend. By the way, did you fire a shot at my car the other day, mistaking me for Balliol?"

"I wish to hell the bullet had got you!" he foamed.

"You're a charitable cuss. And since then, you've given me a lot of tire trouble, to say the least. What's the idea, anyhow? What's back of the feud between you and Balliol?"

He seemed to take no notice of the question.

"You poor fool!" he said scornfully. "I could have killed you any time in the past day or two—"

"Well, you didn't." I chipped in. "Come ahead and loosen up! Let's have an explanation!"

To my horror, I realized that he was coming at me: he had the silky, invisible movement of a snake. To blast the life out of him with that shotgun was impossible. He seemed to be leaning forward, leaning toward me, farther and farther—and then he was in the air and on me.

He gripped me and the gun together, and we struggled for it. I was ready enough to drop the gun and slam into him with my fists, but I saw no use in letting him perforate me with my own gun. So I hung on, and we fought it out by arm-power.

In the middle of it, we lost balance and went to the floor—and the shotgun went off with a deafening explosion, between us.

I realized quickly enough that I was not hurt, and rolled backward, leaping to my feet. Both barrels had exploded, sending both charges into the telephone, which hung wrecked and useless against the wall. Talkso was not hurt either. First thing I knew, he was up and coming at me with a yell, brandishing the shotgun like a club.

According to jiu-jitsu experts, the easiest thing in the world is to lay out a man bearing down on you with a club. As it happens, I am not a j.-j. expert.

Talkso had been an easy mark in the road by McGray's, but he was something else now. He shoved the butt of the gun into my stomach, and when I doubled up, he slammed me over the skull with the barrel. Then he swung up the gun for a finishing stroke.

By this time I was just beginning to realize that it was me for swift action or the count, and I came out of my dream. To be candid, it is only in books that two men get into a hot mix-up and follow the Queensbury rules with meticulous chivalry; in a real scrap of real men, it's hit hardest with anything that will count!

I followed the most natural rules, and being backed against the stove. I went for Talkso with an iron skillet that was handy. I ducked the gun, banged him over the ear, and then swung the skillet on his wrist. He dropped the gun in a hurry, and to even matters I dropped the skillet and began to finish off his education.

He knew something about fighting, and he tried to fight, but that skillet had him groggy from the start. In about two minutes he was trying to get through the door, so I let him out—and hopped right after him. I caught him by the pump, and laid him out finely.

When he came to himself, I had him tied wrists and ankles with dust-cloths from the car, and was wasting good mineral water pumping over his torso. In spite of all my kindness, however, he would do nothing except splutter curses at me, so finally I tired of trying.

"Very well, then, lie here and talk to yourself!" I stated in disgust. "When the sheriff gets here, maybe we'll learn a few things."

I was dead right about that, too!