The House of Skulls/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII.

I GO HUNTING.

MARTHA BALLIOL had fallen against the cobbled chimney of the fireplace, and lay in a crumpled heap, arms outflung. To my horror, I thought her dead—then I saw, upon the floor, the muddy tracks of the flying dragon. She stirred a little, and at the motion, I leaped for the door.

The room was empty save for the girl, but I knew that the creature was somewhere close at hand—and I had left the shotgun in the boat!

I went down the path like a madman, secured the gun, tore open the box of shells, and as I ran back up to the house I loaded both chambers. As I came to the doorway, I saw that Martha Balliol was sitting up, holding one hand to her head. She stared at me.

"What—what was it?" she exclaimed.

"That's what I want to know." I turned my back on her, perhaps ungallantly, to seek some sign of movement from the yard. Nothing stirred. If the thing had been here, it had gone quickly; it had vanished among the trees. "I heard you scream—"

"Something—some one—came up behind and pushed me." Martha Baliiol was standing now, and anger was flashing in her blue eyes. "I heard nothing at all; the surprise made me scream, and I must have fallen against the stones, here—"

She suddenly saw the tracks upon the floor, and paused. Her eyes widened with a swift fear as she pointed to them. I nodded carelessly, then left the door and placed a chair for her.

Without exaggeration, but omitting nothing, I told her about the skull-eyes which I had seen only that morning, and also of the pterodactyl. She listened in silence, but her incredulous gaze made me squirm a bit.

"You speak as if you believed it," she commented at last.

"Look at the tracks for yourself!" I countered. Then, getting her Balliol's book, I showed her the illustration in question.

That shook her fine scorn of the story. She declared herself quite unhurt and refused to let the matter drop; but sat in thoughtful silence for a little.

"There's something queer about this house!" she said at last, and rose. "Let's look at those skulls, Mr. Desmond! I believe Jack said something about them in one of his letters, but I don't remember the exact words—they were Indian relics, I believe. He did not say that he was building them into the house!"

Together we went outside, and while she inspected the skulls, I scrutinized the trees and shores, but vainly. The devilish thing had hidden itself absolutely, and I could see no particular sense in going to find it.

"I can't honestly say that I care for this scheme of decoration." declared Martha Balliol. "Jack was always given to odd notions like this, however. As for your story of the red eyes—well, I'll pass on it when I see them for myself! Now let's go up and look at the house: that is, if you still care to have me do so."

"Do you still want to?" I queried, surprised by her coolness. "You've had a shock—"

"I've been very silly, you mean," she corrected me severely, as we walked toward the steps. "About this prehistoric thing. Mr. Desmond—didn't you say that the steps always came in to the center of a room, then ended? The foot-prints, I mean. Well, that does not look right to me. Of course, the creature might have come so far, then have flown away—"

"You admit there's a creature, then?" I struck in.

"I admit there's something to make those tracks," she said, and laughed merrily. "I wish I had looked over my shoulder when I felt the shove!"

"Perhaps the confounded place is haunted," I said gloomily.

We spent half an hour going over the house. Miss Balliol picked out a few pictures and other things which she would like to have, and I promised to pack them up for her. She was planning to stay for a week or two with the Dawsons.

Although she did not say it in so many words, I realized that her reason for coming here had been to settle the mystery which surrounded her brother's death. And she would settle it. There was no doubt that within a few days she would find out about that note at the bank. The other trouble, the trouble which had smashed Balliol's nerves and which was somehow concerned with John Talkso, whoever he was, lay in the background unsolved.

So, when she had finished with the house, I told her frankly what the banker had just telephoned to me. To be more exact. I told it with some additions and evasions, for I did not think it necessary to say that I was paying off the five thousand. I got around that by saying that the creditor had paid up, having unexpectedly gotten some money, and that the banker had phoned to let Balliol know it was all right.

Beyond question I got things a little involved, but Martha Balliol did not probe the story. To her mind, her brother might still have been living had he only learned in time that he would not have to meet the note. It was a sad business, of course. Out of justice to the dead chap, I fell in honor bound to relate his reasons for suicide, which did his heart better credit than his head.

Yes, taking it up and down, it was a sorry and a sordid and a dashed brave little story. Balliol was a fool and a coward, perhaps, but the thing he did was done in a bravely silent fashion.

Martha Balliol cried a little, and tried to laugh a little; but she finished with a clear and sober understanding of why her brother had killed himself. Then she said that she thought I had better take her on to Dawson's by road, the sun being pretty hot on the water; so I went out and got the car ready. And I kept the shotgun handy. The road, which ran down along the lake shore, was very dusty—the dust was six inches deep in places. This did not trouble the Paragon, of course, and we hummed into the Dawson yard in fine fettle. Mrs. Dawson was there to receive us, and under her wing Martha Balliol vanished almost at once.

I paused to help myself to a few nectarines from a tree near the house, then set forth for home. I drove rather fast, for the road was good; and I got almost to my own place when something happened. Both front tires blew at the same instant!

Fortunately the Paragon was a heavy boat, or we'd have gone topsyturvy; as it was, I almost went into the trees. Of course cord tires do not act as those had acted without very definite reasons. The reasons were in the shape of stout nails, set in scraps of board which had been buried in the dust. I am afraid that I said some very unscriptural things as I drove home on the rims.

Who was the miscreant? The thing was intentional; those bits of board had been planted since I had left home. I cursed some more, while I sat working on the tubes and then pumping up the refitted tires sufficiently to reach Lakeport and an air hose.

One thing was sure: I had inherited John Balliol's enemies! Of this I had no further doubt. If some one were lurking about the place, it was a case of catch or get caught! And the afternoon was young, or young enough, to do a good deal of catching in!

With these brilliant deductions crowding me into action, I began to use my head a little. Obviously, I had two sets of enemies—human and inhuman. The human type was very possibly the man John Talkso. The inhuman was the pterodactyl. I was as much concerned over one as over the other; and as I abandoned my tire labors and glanced up at the house, a sudden scheme struck me.

I picked up my shotgun and sauntered around to the front of the house. For a moment I stood at the lip of the bluff, watching the water and the shore, planning just what I would do. Then I hurried down the path to the boat-house, and beneath its shelter laid the gun in the canoe and covered it with fishing tackle and some burlap. After this, I shoved out and paddled down the shore, away from Dawson's.

Since I kept close in to the shore, I was in five minutes beyond sight of my place, and to any one watching, was off for a fishing trip. But I jerked in to shore and landed before I had gone fifty feet farther. Pulling up the canoe, I stowed it among the bushes, took my shotgun, and struck directly up the steep slope.

It was a hard scramble, but I made it, and in fifteen minutes I gained the road, hot and puffing. I was not a mile from the house, and I went down the road at a good walking clip, certain of being unobserved. The trees to either hand effectually concealed me.

When at length the trees opened up to the left, I had an excellent view of my house and farmyard. I paused, made myself comfortable among the trees, got my pipe going, and began to watch, flattering myself that I had flanked the entire place very neatly. I was well placed to see whatever was going on. But nothing was going on, it seemed. Things happened around that place in bunches, and just now was a quiet moment.

I sat with the gun over my knees, and reflected that this had been a crowded day. It was very nice to think that Martha Balliol was just across the bay at Dawson's farm. The neighborhood seemed very agreeable to me. Of course, the poor girl was overcome because of her brother, but this was a grief which lay in the past; she had nothing unhappy ahead of her. I wished that I were as sure of the same for myself—

Then, abruptly, in the sunlight-flooded clearing around my house, I saw that for which I had been watching and waiting!