The Queer Place
The Queer Place
By Frederick Niven
Author of "Hands Up" "Discretionary Powers" Etc.
The most stolid of men would turn with a shudder from the checkerboard in Flannigan's hotel. And yet if was the only amusement in sixty-two miles. That checkerboard and the "Queer Place" on the trail figure prominently in this eerie tale of the West
THE celebrated speech of Hamlet to Horatio, beginning "There are more things in heaven and earth," came into the mind of Bill Davies, of Ridge, Montana, when he got to the end of the sequence of events that circled round the Queer Place, on the road to Spring Lake.
From Ridge to Midway is easy going, as a rule, and at Midway the freighters camp. There are not always freighters there, of course; but since the Spring Lake mines opened up, to work steadily day and night, the chances are in favor of seeing, dotting the little pocket valley at Midway, the twinkling camp fires of the freighters outspanned for the night there. Sometimes the only light in the valley is the dropped yellow star of Buck Flannigan's "hotel"—the only one between Ridge and Spring Lake.
Buck built it when the placer miners were tearing out the gravel at Midway, thirty years ago. He stayed on after the creek bed had been torn out, the pocket desecrated, and the banks on either hand were left looking as if a mad giant with a rake had been at work there. Unshaven and bleary, he pottered about his paintless hotel, while year by year nature tried to cover over the signs of havoc, and the shacks of what was once Midway fell log by log. You could never say he had a jag on. He was just soaked, yet always coherent.
Flannigan's was thirty miles from Ridge, and two and thirty from Spring Lake, and it looked very lonely, and Flannigan was the split double of a dime-novel cover of Bad Man Plummer—and there, mark you, were the holes in the floor that told of dancing tenderfeet, and there was Flannigan, smiling, as the chink put down your plate of steak and onions, and Flannigan's voice huskily inquired: "What do you drink with it?"
Most of the freighters did not go near Flannigan's after they hauled into the meadow; just got the horses out, the nose bags on, the frying pan on the fire, the blankets spread. They might, in the morning, "have one" at Flannigan's, but that was about the extent of their visits; for Flannigan's depressed everybody. It wasn't a hotel; it was a relict. That checkerboard on the table in the corner of the barroom was the most tragic of checkerboards. The most stolid of men would turn, with a shudder, from the checkerboard. And yet it was the only amusement in sixty- two miles.
It used to haunt and fascinate Bill Davies on the infrequent occasions that loneliness, or drizzle, prompted him to go over to Flannigan's after having made camp. Perched on the high seat of his wagon, waggling through the mountains, the impression of the lone barroom with the lone checkerboard on the corner table used to stay with him even more poignantly than the impression of Flannigan. When Flannigan was talking to him—when Flannigan's bulging, washed-out eyes made him look away, as one looks away from a cuttlefish—Bill used to look at that checkerboard; then back to Flannigan he would turn, to find Flannigan's eyes queerer still.
Something queer about that checkerboard. They didn't play checkers in the old days, when Flannigan's was open day and night. The cards slipped on the table then, the balls ran on the little horses, the dice rattled. In those days, if you wanted to shake for a drink with a friend at Flannigan's you could, by waggling your hand in air for a sign as you advanced to the bar, have the dicebox clapped down there for you. It used to stand on a shelf behind the bar, a dicebox big as a large pepper pot, with dice half an inch square. But it was hidden away when the gold seekers departed, and nature encroached again on Midway—and there was only the checkerboard.
So thought Davies, haunted by the checkerboard as he waggled through the soundless, red-black woods on his high wagon perch. It was morning, dewy and fragrant in the mountains. Behind him, and below, lay the meadow—Midway Meadow—with its black marks of old fires, its torn river bed, its moldering shacks, and Flannigan's. The horses' hoofs fell muffled, the wheels rolled silently in the foot of dust that was the road. The only noise of his progress was the squeak of cargo rubbing, box against box, and an occasional clink of chains when the whiffle swung.
"Queer about that checkerboard!"
It suddenly struck him that there was, perhaps, a game a man could play by himself on a checkerboard.
"Oh, maybe Flannigan plays with the chink!" he considered, and smiled to himself.
No! Flannigan sat all day playing a solitary card game, staring at the cards, setting them out, rearranging them, now this way, now that way, while, outside, the trees stood bolt upright round the little bit of pocket of grass, and the shacks fell into decay, and nothing happened but morning, noon, night, and the crawling hours between—nothing sounded but the creek, the crackle of grasshoppers, the occasional howl of coyote, or scream of bald-headed eagle.
Davies dismissed the sense of queerness and depression, about the place where he usually did dismiss it—dismissed Flannigan's codfish eyes, the furtive, half-frightened-looking chink, and the memory of that barren interior with the checkerboard on the corner table. He dismissed Flannigan's on arrival at a spot where the horses always shied, or tried to bolt, or tried to wheel aside. The same thing always happened at this bend of the road, and he supposed that some former driver had beaten the animals here—overbeaten them, too. Somehow or other, it did not strike him to wonder if both horses had been beaten there, if they had been partners for years. He didn't delve as deep as that. But he knew that about two miles above Flannigan's, going toward Spring Lake, he never failed to have trouble with them.
To-day, just after he passed that place, and got them sensible again, he saw ahead, coming toward him, two riders. They couldn't have come from Spring Lake, unless they had started after supper last night. It was still early in the day, and Bill had been up with the sunrise. Then he recognized them. One was Captain Moyes, of the Moyes Mines; the other, he believed, was a back-East engineer connected with some syndicate—a man with a double-barreled name, he had heard. Thompson-Smith, he thought it was. Anyhow, this man Thompson-Smith—or Johnson-Smith, he wasn't sure which—was in the country looking at various prospects that the success of the Spring Lake vein was bringing before the gaze of the speculators again. So the boys said, at any rate. Davies gave them "How-do!" in passing, and, interested in horseflesh, as well as in the long, lean Easterner who looked as if he should have been a Westerner, he looked round after them.
"Can ride, all right!" he thought, as he observed a sudden trembling and side dancing and general cavorting of the young engineer's horse at the bend of the road. It seemed to upset Moyes' pony, but Bill knew that Moyes was a horseman, and merely watched the Easterner. He laughed as he saw that long, lean man dwindle down the road, "staying with it" excellently. Down the aisle in the wood—for thus the slit of wagon road seemed—a pennon of dust wavered after the riders had vanished round the bend.
A joggling of his wagon caused Bill to look ahead once more, and caution his horses with: "Steady, now; don't you know the road by this time?" But it was not fright with them again. Perhaps in turning round to see how the engineer fellow rode he had pulled a rein by accident.
"Steady, you! Steady!"
And they plodded on demurely in the steady and blameless plod into which they always settled soon after having passed that bend.
About noon, Bill halted at Saskatoon Creek, hauling aside from the road, as was the usage with most who came there, whether others were expected or not. Some would not haul aside until they heard the squeak of harness, or joggle of load, that announced another team on trek; but Bill was not of those. He got out bits there, and nose bags on, ran a careful eye and a massaging hand over his big beasts, rinsed his hands in the creek, and sat down to en- joy his own lunch during the half-hour rest.
He had just got through the rinsing when from the direction of his travel came the intermittent squeaks that announce an advancing wagon. And here it was, waggling through the woods on the deep-rutted road, Jim Conyers drowsy on high, wrist on knee, lines in hand, humming some plaintive and catchy song. They waved forefinger and second finger of a hand to each other, grinned up, grinned down; and then Conyers reined in, throwing a leg negligently over the high seat, to chat at ease, punctuating his remarks with: "Steady, Molly!" "What you doin', Sorrel?" "Oh, stand still, Molly! Can't you flick a fly off without turning the rig over?"
"That syndicate fellow's still up in the hills with Moyes," he said, as a piece of chatter, reins over hooked elbow now, enjoying his noon snack. "They say Moyes is liable to sell him the Nellie Moyes prospect up on this here spur. More haulin' then, eh?" And he looked up the precipitous hill that sheered away with the trees standing at acute angles to it.
"That's where they've been, is it?" answered Bill. "I met them on the road a bit back, going toward Flannigan's. Wondered what they had been at to be so early on the road, and so far from Spring Lake.
"Did you? Moyes has an interest in some other location on the other side. I suppose they were crossing to it. If they ain't at Flannigan's when I get there, I guess that's where they'll be—up on the other side. They say that long fellow—I forget his name—something-Smith—represents enough dough to open up all the claims in the country. He's seen the ore to Spring Lake in Moyes' office, and now he's looking where it comes from, so I guess he has intentions."
"Well, he's some rider!" said Bill. "His horse went bughouse as sudden as a knife, just after we met, and he gave an exhibition good enough to get honorable mention at Pendleton."
"Where was this?" asked Conyers, interested.
"Back some ways—you know that bend where there's the roots of a cedar?"
"Sure—kind of waggle up and down. About two miles this side of Flannigan's?"
"Huh!" Conyers jerked a thumb at his horses. "They'll do the same at that bend—fierce. I never whale them for it; guess they were whaled there for something once. Goin' along light with them I sometimes wish I was carrying a jag on the wagon to stop a team of six, let alone two."
Bill merely nodded, but his face was full of thought.
"Sure," said Conyers. "I always begin a-talkin' comforting to them a bit ahaid. As a matter of fact, I don't like the place myself."
"Neither do I," answered Bill, and nodded again. For some reason, he seemed to see Flannigan again, and that drab barroom, with the mocking checkerboard in the corner, the disconsolate, rejected, dejected, inviting, and repellent checkerboard.
"Well, guess I'd better be pulling out," said Conyers—and did so, toward Midway, while Bill hauled onto the road once more and continued his joggle and swing to Spring Lake.
But what Conyers had said about his horses getting restive at that place two miles above Flannigan's stayed with Bill, and brought him back to the depression that he had generally left far behind by this time. It struck him that the whole way was oppressive—the quiet, hushed forest, the winding, muffled road, grim and terrible, as if something queer might happen anywhere. He was in a mood to quit the job and pull out for a brighter bit of country, more open, more colored; but anon the mood departed.
"Something at that bend, I guess, is unpleasant for horses," he thought.
He did not admit that it was particularly unpleasant for at least one human being—namely Bill Davies. An open-air man, he felt, without being consciously introspective.
It happened that on his return trip from Spring Lake to Ridge he had occasion to walk that bit of road alone, not even in the company of horses. With the end of the sunset he had come to the place the horses did not like, wrestled with them, coaxed them, and had just sighted, from the hillside, the camping ground at Midway when he noticed that there had happened to him what had never happened before: his big sack of feed, from which he filled the nose bags of his hefty Montanas, had joggled off.
Back went his thoughts over the road, and he guessed he knew where it lay. It had fallen off when he wrestled with the animals at their place of fears and sweats. Well, he would drive down to the meadow and then return for it, for the load was heavy, the horses were tired, and the meadow was in sight. So down he drove to his wonted camp place, and there unhitched. The horses looked round for their nose bags, wondering what had come to their human partner of the road.
"All right," said Bill Davies. "I guess I dropped the grub. There! You stop there; I'll hike back and fetch it."
A plainsman would have spraddled over even a draft horse for that couple of miles' hike back on the road, but Bill, feeling stiff in the limbs after his day on the elevated seat, thought to stretch his legs. Away he went uphill again, the two beasts turning, puzzled, to look after him. He swung off stiffly, but soon fell into a plodding stride, and dissipated his exasperation at himself for having dropped the bag in the exercise of walking to find it.
Hints of night were all around. It would be here soon. At this place, on the hill up from Midway, there were generally many chipmunks disporting; now but one or two chirped and ran and again chirped thinly, knowing that night was near. On Bill trudged, enjoying his walk still, though to be sure he was pleased to hear the silver notes of a bobolink, as if addressed to him. They were antidote to the dark-red, dark-green infestivity of the slopes.
Up on the hillside, in the forest, he turned and looked down between the trees. He could still see the wagon, with the horses at the tail, waiting for their oats. They looked small from here, but he could even make out that they were still turned toward him—or turned in the direction in which he had departed—by the white of their foreheads. The meadow was going drab, the green fading. A shadow seemed to be drifting across it. The horses moved from the wagon to make shift on grass, as if they were unpampered cayuses instead of oat-suppered heavyweights. No light yet showed where Flannigan's stood to one side, backed by trees—but perhaps it was not yet time for lights. Away up on high a peak showed over the trees with a sullen glow still on it. In the woods, however, night was fast getting to business. Bushes merged in darkness, a drifting, subtle darkness; they did not stand forth—they merely bulked, deeper glooms.
And then, just before he reached the bend, something suddenly happened to Bill Davies in his inner parts; and there were little shivers came over him—for he felt that he was being looked at.
He pshawed aside this inexplicable feeling, told himself that night was falling a bit cold, and puckered his eyes more keenly to see where the dropped sack lay. These shivers he had not felt since childhood, in the dark of a little loft over a farm in Indiana, where he had been "raised." He told himself again that night was going to be chilly. He could still see ahead, though the cleared cut of the road had a very lonesome appearance now, with the woods so darkened.
Say! He must get over this queer feeling of being looked at! He was just at that bend where his horses had been walloped once by a former teamster. Somebody was looking at him! And, say, not only his horses were like that here! What was it Conyers had said to him about the place? He peered left and right as he walked. It occurred to him that it would be dark before he could get back to the meadow. He should have brought a lamp. A man might—well, a man might stub a toe, for instance.
Pshaw! There was nothing to stub a toe on. A man had only to keep walking in the deep dust of the road. He looked left and right, and hiked on. He was at the bend; some one was looking at him—and then his foot, in stepping out, impinged on something soft that yielded; and he leaped aside.
The breath jumped out of him. He thought it was a body he had blundered onto; but it was only what he had come for, the sack of horse feed! He took it up. He flung it over his shoulder. He started incontinently to hike back. He wanted to run, and, of course, would not; but he was being looked at—and from behind now.
Night had fallen, and up in the mountains a long howl wavered—a coyote saluting the sure night. The shivers ran again in Bill Davies' spine, and he could explain them to himself this time—not with utter conviction, however—as being caused by that unwarned and dismal cry. Any fellow feels the melancholy unpleasantness of coyotes' howls, be he lean or fat, town bred or mountain bred.
He was being looked at! No, no, he was not! He told himself he was not—and believed that he was. Here was the meadow glimmering gray, and mighty glad he was to see it. He had never known two such unpleasant miles. There were a few stars beginning to show. Here was the meadow with a sense of openness, and here were the white faces of his horses; here was their whinnying greeting; and a little later there was the sound of their munching, the sound of the crackling camp fire, the sizzling bacon, and the appetizing odor of it.
Across the meadow, Flannigan's light now showed. Nearer, there was another wavering light coming into being. Evidently some other teamster had outspanned there, on the way to Spring Lake from Ridge. Bill wanted lots of dancing light that night, and he flung on much wood after supper. If all the teamsters in the Rockies outspanned in the meadow at Midway, each with his own fire, Bill Davies would welcome them. Soon he heard gentle whistling. Men advancing on another camp are wont to come with noise, a sneeze or a cough, a deliberate tramping on a fallen branch, a whistling or humming of a bar of song. Bill shaded his eyes from the firelight and stared into the darkness.
"Hello, Jim!" he cried.
Jim Conyers roamed into view.
"Well, it's you, Bill," he said. "I guessed it would be. How you makin' out? You look lonesome," and he filled his pipe.
Bill was lonesome. He had never been so glad of a companion at the Midway camp in all his journeying through the country. He put on another can of tea for hospitality's sake, and just as he was measuring out the leaves, a shot rang sharply in the night.
"What's that?" snapped Jim; and, leaping up, he peered in the direction of the little sparkle and twinkle that showed where his own camp lay across the pocket.
"It was at Flannigan's," said Bill, and wondered why his voice sounded thick. But though his voice was thick, he felt he must find out what the shot meant. Both men knew that a shot from Flannigan's at this time of night was not right.
"Better go over," said Bill.
"Maybe cleanin' gun and it loaded," said Jim. "Maybe shot himself."
"Better go over," said Bill again.
They hit across the meadow to the sparkle of light in the window, and then suddenly the door of Flannigan's flung back, and there was a dancing dervish of a figure in the light, waving its hands. It was before the days when chinks cut off their cues, and the cue of this figure let them know that it was Flannigan's chink, agitated, in the doorway. He seemed to be in flight, then spun round, halted, retreated back into the light; then the light was shut off abruptly; the door had closed again.
"Huh!" a perplexed grunt came from each of the men, and they strode smartly across the meadow. When they came to the old hotel they walked to the window of one accord, walked stealthily now, and looked in. What they saw was the chink wringing his hands on the hither side of the bar; and on the other side were two men stooping as if to lift something.
"It's a holdup!" cried Jim. "You ain't heeled by any chance, Billy?"
"Might run a bluff, if we do it properly, but——"
The two men who were lifting the burden were suddenly revealed as they rose, humped up.
"It's Captain Moyes!" Jim broke out.
"And the young engineer from the East that's looking at them prospects," said Bill.
They were lifting Flannigan. They raised him to the bar; they felt his heart, looked at him, looked at each other. The engineer, frowning, spoke a lot, as if hurriedly.
"We'll go in," said Bill.
They opened the door and entered—and the first thing that Bill noticed was the checkerboard lying on the floor face downward, and the men, black and white, scattered broadcast. The three living inmates swept round at their entrance. Flannigan's hotel seldom saw boys dropping in long after dark now. Twenty-five years ago it was different. Even Captain Moyes started.
"Hello, boys!" said he, recovering. "Pity you didn't come in sooner—for witnesses."
"Oh, it's clear enough," said the tall man. "Look at the way he grabbed his gun. And we have one witness in the Chinaman."
"It was the chink I was thinking of," replied Moyes in low tones. "He might swear you did it."
"What's the racket?" asked a voice. It was Bill's. He recognized it after it was out. He had a feeling that everything was going to be explained when he saw the checkerboard upside down at last, the squares hidden, the men scattered. He no longer felt that queer, haunting sense in the place.
Moyes turned to Thompson-Smith, as if expecting him to reply to Bill's question, and that gentleman said:
"It is only the end of a long job. There was a man came into this country over a year ago, and was lost sight of—my brother. I never thought we were like each other, but other people did——"
"He did," broke in Moyes meaningfully.
"How's that?" said Conyers.
"He says that because of what happened just now," answered Smith. "You see, my brother didn't show up again, and he had no reason, that I knew, for not showing up again. He wrote to me once or twice from Ridge. He was going up in the mountains prospecting. Then I never heard from him again. I came West a month or two ago to see if I could trace him. They knew of him at the assay office, in Ridge, and he had registered a claim on Palliser Creek, up there. Then I got hold of Captain Moyes. He had met my brother in the hills, and thought he could find me a place he had been doing some work in. We visited the registered claim. He hadn't been there for a long time. Then we hunted over the hills where Captain Moyes knew he had been working last year. We found his camp, all right, and a bit of a tunnel. It looked as if he had intended to come back to it. Of course, a man might have a reason for cutting off from his family, and all old friends, a reason that his own people didn't know; but when we saw that camp, Captain Moyes and I made sure that my brother had intended coming back to it. Of course, men do go into the hills, and never come back; men have accidents as——"
"Plenty men have," said Moyes; "but, all the same——"
"All the same," went on Smith, "we argued from that camp that he intended to come back to it. He hadn't run away from anything, I thought. That camp let me know that it was worth while making inquiries for him. Captain Moyes suggested that he got his supplies from Flannigan, not from Spring Lake. This is so much nearer, you see. His last camp was just up there," and Smith waved a hand. Bill noticed that he looked white and tired. Anyhow, we rode down here this evening. We didn't see Flannigan——"
"Sleeping off his tanglefoot," put in Moyes.
"We had supper, and as there was nothing to do but checkers, we sat down to play. Flannigan evidently thought fit to get up for the evening, then, just half an hour ago. He came in to the bar, and—— Well, I never saw anything like it!"
"How's that?" said Bill, in a strained voice.
"Oh," answered Moyes, "he just stared at Mr. Smith, here, and then went crazy. That man was sodden with tanglefoot, only needed a shock to put him off his balance. He just started cackling: 'What you doing there? What you doing there—when I not only shot you, but buried you!' Up jumps Mr. Smith at that. I thought he was done for. Yes, sir"—he turned to Smith—"I thought you were done for when he grabbed under the bar. I knew that meant gun!"
"What happened?" Bill heard Conyers ask.
Smith inclined his head toward Moyes.
"We both jumped at him. Captain Moyes grabbed at his wrist——"
"Shot himself?" said Conyers.
"That's what!" answered Captain Moyes. "But what I want to know is why and how he killed your brother? And what did he mean about burying him?"
The Chinaman, now calmed down, was thinking of his own skin. He came a little nearer to the group.
"I tell you," he said. "Misa Flannig' he shoot him one night because this man he kill come in and eat suppah. I give him suppah. Misa Flannig' say, 'What you dlink?' This man he kill look at him, and say nothing at all. He look at him alle same he think Misa Flannig' hide to him. Misa Flannig' say, 'What you dlink?' again one time moah, moah lude, and this mart say, 'Dlink nothin',' he say, 'when you look at me like that.' Misa Flannig' him clazy. He come round and say he bleak this man head. This man say he guess not bleak, and he jump up—all same you did. They fight. This man knock Misa Flannig' back against ba'. Misa Flannig' reach over for gun, and shoot him."
The Chinaman paused, and Captain Moyes spoke hard and keen.
"Why in thunder didn't you tell the marshal?” he asked. "You've been in Melica long enough to know that, eh?"
"Oh, I scale—I scale. Misa Flannig' say if I tell he say I shoot the man. He say he shoot me. He say if I try to go away any time he follow me. He give me money every month. I wait for Misa Flannig' die—go back China, eh?" and he smiled a sickly and terrified smile.
"That's scare, all right—to the limit," said Moyes. "Where did he bury this man you tell me about?"
"Oh, I not know."
"Come, now! Guess you helped him. Guessed he scared you to help him, too."
"Yes, he scale me. He made me help cally him up on mountainside—some way along, and throw him back from wagon road. He say: 'Now, if bymby somebody catchum they think somebody hold him up on wagon road and shoot!'"
"Where was this, then?"
"Up on hill west," answered the Chinaman. "You no allest me! You no allest me!"
Moyes and Smith looked at each other.
"If he shows us, that's all, now, I suppose," said Smith, in a heavy voice. "I expect he was terrified. Anyhow, he didn't do it."
"I show you—I show you now. I take lamp and show you—not far, two mile up, off the road, and in a place all same gulch."
Bill Davies wet his lips, and then looked at Conyers. Conyers did not seem to associate his experiences two miles up with this story at all.
"We'll go up in the morning," said Captain Moyes.
"I'll show you—and you not have me allest?" whined the chink.
They turned from him, thoughtful.
"I don't want to sleep here to-night," said Moyes. "How about sleeping at you fellows' camp?"
"We ain't camped together," said Billy. "You come to my camp. You come over, too, Conyers. You go and fetch your blankets. We'll all camp together." There was a note of something like somber hilarity in his voice.
He was not "scaled," but this business was different from anything that had ever happened in his life. To Jim Conyers there might seem no association between that disposal of the murdered man and the funk of the horses up there; but to him there was. And he was further silenced over the way in which the whole thing had come out.
He was a quiet man that night, pondering two themes: First, the way the horses felt and the way he had felt up at the bend, that very night; second, the way that checkerboard has been mixed up in the affair. Had he, as well as a keen sense to the presence of that body up there, also the gift of second-sight? Did he, subconsciously, every time he saw that checkerboard, have a knowledge that through it would come the exposal? It was all too deep for him. But he felt, assuredly, that he had got mixed up not superficially, but deeply, with a side of things that could not be seen, touched, bumped into.
In the morning, he did not go up with Moyes and Smith to "look see" with the Chinaman. He waited at the meadow till they and Conyers returned. And then he did not need to ask. He read it on their faces. Only when he climbed to his seat to pull out for Ridge, and Conyers gathered his reins to pull out for Spring Lake, did Bill say to Jim: "Was it at the place where the horses get scared?"
"Yes," said Conyers. "Just off the road there. There's a kind of gulch back a few yards, a sudden drop. There was nothing left—the coyotes had seen to that. Yes, sir, I guess the horses are wise to that crack there. Horses have a sense we don't have about some things, I guess. They're scared of getting off the wagon road and down that bit of precipice we can't see for bush. Never knew it was there myself."
Though Bill thought Conyers' explanation very lame, compared with his own, he did not think that Conyers was exactly fruitful soil for his nebulous theory, so he left it unspoken. But he took special note that the next time he passed the bend the horses seemed hardly to know they had arrived at the spot of their terrors. They fidgeted a little, but went on easily; and on the way back, a day or two after still, they passed, unheeding, with no shivers, no veerings at all, no signs of funk.