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MAX BRAND

SEVEN MILE HOUSE

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover 2015

AN RGL FIRST EDITION

WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY RONALD BOCKING AND S. MAXWELL

Serialized in Argosy, beginning October 4, 1941
Subsequently re-published under syndication, e.g., in:
Werribee Shire Banner, Victoria, Australia, May 16, 1946, ff
The Western Mail, Perth, Australia, March 3, 1949, ff

First edition in book form: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan
from copies of Argosy and The Western Mail

Click here for more books by this author



Cover Image

Argosy, October 4, 1941, with first part of "Seven Mile House"



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Illustrations 8, 11 and 17 are by S. Maxwell, all others by Ronald Bocking.



CHAPTER I

TIME once more was standing still for Samuel Kennedy. It had such a habit of pausing, and he with it, that he had gained from the world nothing but a great deal of amusement; in every business enterprise he had been a complete failure. Now he sat on a rock with his hat at the back of his head and focussed his enlarging glass on the silken nest of a trapdoor spider.


Illustration

Samuel Kennedy.


He had been there for an uncounted period; and he himself could not tell how long he would remain with the sun gathering force towards the zenith and scalding through the back of his shirt.

He knew nothing about the West which he had just entered, but every portion of the world he visited became a wonderland to him. These desert hills, in which nothing had apparent existence except patches of low brush, clinging like smoke to the ground, in reality teemed with life, as he now discovered. In the round field of his glass, the grains of sand showed big. They glistened as though they themselves were a source of light. Small pebbles lay with blue shadows beside them. There was a tiny plant with bristles instead of leaves and a single blossom not a quarter of an inch wide, but the glass of Kennedy showed the blue of the cup, dusted almost to the lips with golden pollen. In addition to the spider's nest with whatever it contained, a lizard as grey and thin as a splinter of rock lay on a stone some ten or twelve inches from the silken door. It was in an attitude of attention, its head lifted, one forefoot advanced half a step, its translucent tail still curved down the side of the stone. For endless minutes it had maintained this posture, studying the huge black shadow and the motionless man above it.

At last it moved, darting two or three inches, pausing, darting again. It left the mark of its tail on the sand, thin as the shadow of a wave in water. In these two or three quick advances it had come much closer to the spider's dwelling. What was the bourn of its journeying, wondered Kennedy. Out of instinct or memory, to what nook was it bound where insects might come within its reach? Perhaps the little blue flower with its cup of gold was the bait which it would use. But here the lid of the spider's house flicked open and a shadow darted from it. By the time Kennedy had his glass trained on the proper spot, the lizard and the spider were twisted into a rolling knot. Sand scattered about them. A little puff of dust rose and shone in the sunshine. In the pallid shadow which it cast beneath, the lizard lay still with the fangs of the murderess fixed in its thigh. The glass of Kennedy showed how they were being driven deeper and deeper. What old Greek was it who spoke of a woman calmly murdering, "like a spider, stabbing and poisoning without malice"? Kennedy shivered. He rose to his feet.

Now that he stood erect, that world of life and death at his feet was removed suddenly to unimportant distance but he had been enriched by one more bit of knowledge, he had stored another picture in the gallery of his brain. If was time now to remember that he was hungry, above all that his throat fairly crackled with thirst, so he took a swallow from his full canteen and started again up the pass. Something more than hunger or thirst troubled him, however. Characteristically he paused to find out what it might be, whether an external object or an unhappy thought; for Kennedy was the very epitome of leisurely action and something in his nature prevented him from doing more than one thing at a time.

It was one of the grey stones at the top of the next low hill that had bothered him, he discovered. A sense of motion had registered on the very margin of his field of vision and in the haze of his subconscious mind. He turned and stared. There was no more movement, but as he centred his attention he was first aware that something watched him from among the rocks and then he made out the head of an animal as grey as the stones. Instantly all was clear in spite of that protective colouration. A wolf sat there not a hundred feet away and surveyed him without fear.

Perhaps the murder he had just witnessed had left a chill in the nerves of Kennedy, but when he saw the beast so insolently at watch within stone's throw, he could not help remembering that he had no sign of a weapon with him except a very ineffectual little pocket knife. He picked up a rock with good, jagged edges. It fitted his hand in the most friendly way and made him feel a little better, yet he could not keep from his mind some of those childhood stories we read of famine and man-hunting wolves. Those are winter tales, but hunger can have as sharp a tooth in the desert as in the snow. He waved his rock. He shouted. The beast did not so much as lower its pointed ears.

Panic jumped up into the throat of Kennedy, but it always was an odd habit of his to try to outface fear. Besides, all logic forbade him to believe what his eyes were seeing. Generations of hunters with high-powered rifles have made the wild animals of the West as timid as birds when man is near. This calm defiance was totally incredible. So Kennedy found his long legs carrying him straight up the slope to investigate. He was by no means one of those fearless athletes who find something in themselves that may be trusted in any emergency. Instead, he was a tall, spare New England type, with the strength fitted close to the bone, and his lean face, habitually smiling in a dream, grew alert only at intervals. It was not reckless self-confidence that sent him up the hill now, but an impulse of sheer curiosity as avid as that of a child. He might be called a random investigator, but he gave to every problem a consideration as patient as science itself.

Halfway to the shoulder of the hill he paused, for he saw a blackened smudge of mud or of dried blood on the head of the beast.

Perhaps this was the explanation. Some crippling injury prevented the animal from moving. Kennedy went on again with more confidence. He was only a few steps away when the creature flung itself towards him without a snarl, with only a silent uncovering of its fangs and a bright green devil in its eyes. The spring of the spider on the lizard was not more swift, but now an invisible hand jerked the beast to the ground. A chain rattled. Through the bristling neck fur Kennedy saw a collar studded with copper.


Illustration

He was only a few steps away when the creature flung itself towards him.


He drew a long, sighing breath of relief and lighted a cigarette with deliberation. Another little mystery had vanished under an inquiring eye. It was not a wild animal at all. It was simply a dog on a leash whose handgrip was wedged into a rock crevice so that the poor brute could not get free. Kennedy, blowing out smoke through mouth and nose, looked into other details of the situation in a far more relaxed state of mind. In some accident the big police dog had been injured; its master had fastened it here and would return in due time.

Another man would have gone on, now, perfectly satisfied, but Kennedy was a dweller upon detail. The green murder that still shone in the eyes of the dog intrigued him. And now that it began to pant he noticed that the tongue was discoloured and thick. Something else about it seemed strange; he realised after a moment that the oddity lay in the dryness of that tongue. Not a drop of saliva seemed to brighten it.

Now that he had pored upon the central figure, for a time, Kennedy shifted his attention to the rest of the scene. A few steps up the slope appeared the mouth of a cavity, partially masked by brush. When he went to it, he saw upon the sand inside a mark as though a body had been dragged. Furthermore, there was a vague imprint near a stained patch on the ground as though at this point the dog had lain on its side, bleeding. From that place the trail of its footfalls came to the mouth of the cave, but there disappeared.

Kennedy, sitting crosslegged, brooded over the little problem through a second cigarette, for his mind worked slowly, slowly. In a pinch, for quick deductions, he was almost the worst man you could find. His mathematics were not those of a lightning calculator, but rather those of one who deliberates in the terms of a new geometry which contains an extra dimension. He was remembering, finally, that two days before there had been a violent wind-storm; some of the fine dust it carried was still in the innermost recesses of his knapsack. And now he could begin to approximate some conclusions. The dog, it seemed, had been dragged into this cavity and left lying there. At least two days before, it had roused, walked from the cave, and become fastened—by chance or by the purpose of its master—in the rock crevice. The wind-storm had erased the trail it made in leaving the cave. Now Kennedy could go still farther. The only sign of a man's approach was his own trail, deeply marked and shadowed in the sand. No-one had been near this place for two whole days, therefore, and the dog had been caught in the rock by mere chance.

He returned to the consideration of the dog. The blood matted on its head did not entirely conceal a furrow, deeply ploughed from between the eyes to the top of the skull. And here the interest of Kennedy grew again to a fever-point. Very apparently the animal had been shot down, dragged into the cave, and left for dead. And in the world of men, how many brutes are there who will murder a dog? Furthermore, in such a spacious wilderness of sand and rocks, who would bring out a dog upon a leash? The enigma grew wider and deeper. Kennedy, dreaming his way into the dark continent of human impulses and purposes that might have inspired these strange actions, began to smile a little, as a hungry man might do, imagining a table loaded with French cookery. He was deeply content.

It might well be that the savage temper of the dog had caused someone to shoot it. As for this, Kennedy soon could find out. At least two days of bleeding and of heat had starved the animal with thirst. Kennedy took off his hat, from his canteen poured some water into it, and held it at arm's length so that the dog, crouched at the end of its chain, barely could reach it. Instantly the poor beast was drinking. The green left its eyes. Its thick brush of a tail commenced to sweep the ground as it looked up to Kennedy with entreaty. All fear left Kennedy then. The last drop of his canteen finally went into the hat and was gone. By that time his hand was stroking the long, dusty fur. Through the thick of it his finger-tips found the great ribs, one by one. But his mind was reaching back beyond this moment to that other scene, more than two days before, when someone with a careful deliberation had shot the dog down and then, even in this untravelled wilderness, bad chosen to conceal the body. The mere facts were trivial compared with the possible motives and Kennedy was lost in the consideration of them, when the whining of the grey dog roused him. The big fellow, straining at his leash, was pointing steadily into the north-west.


CHAPTER II

UP through the pass Kennedy was led, his hand on the grip of the leash. It seemed less a trail than a hope that the dog was following, sometimes ranging from side to side, sometimes with lifted head studying the wind. It was love of the master that kept the tail a-wag and the body quivering. As he watched that eagerness the heart of Kennedy began to ache a little, for who was there in this world that yearned to be near him as this poor beast desired the scent, the touch, the closeness, the divine voice and eye of the master? That bullet fired on the hillside seemed more and more like an attempt at murder than the mere slaughter of an animal, and the purpose of Kennedy hardened with every step of the journey as steel toughens under hammering.


Illustration

Beyond the throat of the pass the country opened. In the canyons among the high hills trees appeared. Even the desert air was altered by almost imperceptible fragrances and gave a sharper, more living breath. But this wider landscape, this more capacious horizon, seemed to baffle the dog. He sat down on his haunches and, pointing his nose straight up, seemed about to howl with misery; but his sides laboured and his throat strained without the uttering of a sound. Either instinct or a strict teacher had taught him to hunt in silence. And after a moment he resumed his search.

He took a much more wandering course now, looping more and more generously from side to side, and pausing on every rise of ground to study again all the messages that came to him down the wind. Kennedy, looking back, saw that he was being drifted still in the direction of the north-west which they had followed through the pass, but he could guess that it was a blind trail. As for himself, he was perfectly helpless except, later on, to make inquiry after a man who had owned a German shepherd dog of this description. But human beings were rare in this sunburnt part of the world, and towns were separated by almost astronomical spaces. It was better to trust to the love of the dog to find the criminal, his master.

They came now into sight of a gleam of water that appeared and disappeared among the hills with a fringing of trees along the banks and green meadowlands in some of the lower places. It seemed to Kennedy that the dog must make a true line for the stream, and Kennedy's own throat was parched by thirst; but the beast kept to his hunt with a passion and Kennedy permitted himself to be led where the dog would go.

It was his nature to commit himself to a moment utterly, and to be swallowed up by each successive event. He could almost disappear in a room filled with people, sitting in some corner where he was least in the way and, with his characteristic faint smile, drinking in all that was said, keeping himself so motionless that nothing about him stirred, for an hour at a time, except his eyes. So now he abandoned all effort to direct the dog, but let himself be drawn mindlessly here and there. That which he studied, that in which he lost himself, was the headlong devotion of the animal. He thought of love itself, calmly, for it never had come close to him; but he could not fail to realise that it was the mainspring which turns men into heroic patriots, brainless fools, high poets, tiresome bores. It is the one earthly impulse which must exist in heaven also. As for himself, there had been a few stirrings of the blood and the spirit when he was with women, but he always was too busy recognising the beginnings to permit them to develop. In a sense, he destroyed his life by too much thought, as a plant may be destroyed by too much sun. Now he studied blind love in the struggles of the dog to find his owner's trail.

They came to a hill beyond the top of which the heads of trees were showing, beyond which also he heard a music of falling water that reminded him violently of his own thirst. The sound, therefore, gave him both pleasure and pain.

The hill was composed chiefly of a brittle, blue shale, noisy underfoot except where a little soil had collected, here and there, and permitted grass to grow. To the left, a small landslide had dropped into the narrows of a canyon, filling it several feet deep with a rubble that held several large boulders. More large stones appeared along the top of the hill, a semi-circle that looked like part of an old Indian fort. He barely had noted these details when the dog almost wrenched the leash from his hand. It began to run with nose to the ground, uttering a small, moaning noise of unutterable excitement and joy, along the very edge where the slide had commenced and where a few of the boulders had been displaced.

Back and forth, the dog hurried, studying the place so carefully that Kennedy examined it also. He even took out his enlarging glass and grew minute in his search, but all that he could see, where the boulders had been rooted, were a few marks in the rock as though made by the narrow end of a pick.

The dog lifted its head, studied the wind with eyes almost closed, like a connoisseur studying the bouquet of a wine, and then made a few tentative steps down the slide. What it started Kennedy completed. The slope was so sharp and the shale so crumbling that he found himself skidding and floundering down to the bottom of it, dragging the dog after him. There he paused to take breath, leaning on one of the large, fallen stones. But this wealth of loose, workable ground seemed to excite the dog as soft garden soil often will do. He began to scratch furiously, as Kennedy dried the sweat from his fore head and prepared to go down the canyon. A formidably deep growl brought his attention again. A shallow trench had been scraped out by the dog and it exposed some buried animal, or at least a tuft of brown hair from which the wind began to blow the dust. Something about the lightness of that hair troubled Kennedy. He leaned to look at it. He gripped a heavy stone beside the blown fur and pulled it out. The pocket he had made received a little run of the pulverised shale and as it flowed away, Kennedy saw exposed beneath the hair a human forehead, eyes half closed, and the face of a man as far down as the bridge of the nose. There was no sense of death. It was rather as though the fellow were standing there beneath the debris of the landslide lost in deep thought from which presently he would look up.

In a few moments Kennedy I had drawn up the dead man and laid him on the top of the broken shale. There was some hundred and eighty pounds of him. He was perhaps 30, a well-made six-footer dressed in a linen suit, a handsome man who seemed, by his smile, to have discovered that death was amusing, but a little contemptible. A deep abrasion on the right side of his head showed that he had died quickly, but since his face was turned in that direction he seemed at first glance quite untouched. The wound, the half-closed eyes, the smile brought up in Kennedy a rising horror; he half expected the dead to rise, to be at ease, to speak cheerfully, to go among other men, unconscious of that gaping hole in the side of the head. And all the while the sun blazed like an angry eye from a broad golden seal ring on his hand.

He found the very stone which had dealt the wound, its ragged projection on one side made to give the blow and covered with the red coagulation. On one side of it, as Kennedy surveyed it with his enlarging glass, he found a slight fuzz adhering, and his fingers plucked away a little quantity of this. He commenced to roll it together as he looked back to the dead man.

Here, then, was the master. No, for the dog kept the chain of his leash taut, trying to pull up the slope, and bringing down another shower of the crumbling shale. But there was something more important than the dog's trail, now. Kennedy led or dragged him down the ravine's windings.

A slight stickiness on his thumb and forefinger made him aware that the fuzz he had picked from the side of the rock had turned into a little, compacted thread. This interested him. It indicated that the fuzz had come from a waxed surface. He took a page from his notebook, put the thread inside it, and replaced the folded sheet in his book. It might have a voice and speak for itself, later on. He continued up the draw with the dog. He had not gone a hundred steps before be came into the wider valley through which the stream ran, stopped by a mill-dam that backed up a bright-faced little wheel over which the water above the dam poured uselessly except to keep its voice alive in the landscape. But the mill was only one of a number of sheds and barns which grouped like a little village around the central building. This was an old, rectangular affair completely surrounded by two-storey verandahs and painted white. It looked like an old Southern plantation house in an absurd setting, for the backdrop was of gaunt blue mountains and the foreground was the riot of Western hills, pale under the sun. A freshly-painted sign above the entrance to the main building announced that this was the "Seven Mile House."

* * * * *

"SEVEN miles from what?" pondered Kennedy. "Seven miles from nowhere!"

He considered this scene with his customary leisure until he had noticed the dim presence of what might once have been well-defined road passing down the valley. It wound out of sight, perhaps towards the ghost of a town that once had been seven miles away; or there might still be, in the distance, some stumbled-kneed old crossroads village. At least there had been nothing large enough to show on even the most detailed map. It seemed to Kennedy that he had entered not only a new country, but a removed section of time. When he started towards the Seven Mile House he would hardly have been surprised to see a figure in hoop-skirts come out through the door.

The dog in the meantime found something ardently satisfying on the ground among the thousands of footprints. He wavered for a moment back and forth, then took a straight line to certain obscure pick-marks upon the boulders which seemed to indicate that they were artificially loosened, perhaps artificially set rolling to bring down the landslide. If that were true, a. murdered man lay now in the ravine; and these foot prints which the dog followed so earnestly were the trail of the murderer.

The very soul of Kennedy warmed to this suggestion. Concerning the master of this dog he had had certain pungent questions to ask long before; the questions now would deal with something far more important than attempted dog-murder. There grew in Kennedy an ironical hunger to see this great brute fawn at the feet of his master or his mistress. It would be a betrayal through blind love.

Perhaps he was a little too full of these thoughts to keep his grip firm on the chain, or else the scent of the master grew strong enough to give the grey dog an added strength. At any rate, near the verandah of the tavern the big fellow burst suddenly away from him and bounded up the front steps with his nose still down. The chain, flying to the side, crashed against the open door; then the dog disappeared in the dim interior, his nails making mud scratchings on the floor. Kennedy hurried after. A woman screeched. The screech settled into a high scream that made goose-flesh run up the spine. He thought of the lizard and the spider-fangs; but that had been silent torture. There was no cessation in this screaming it seemed to him. The voice struck high C, and stayed there.

He ran across the hallway. It was large, shadowy with coolness that washed like water over his hot body, and descending into the well of the hall he saw the curve of a white stairway with a red carpet running up the treads. He saw himself, also, gaunt and forward leaning, as his image ran across the face of a big mirror. Except in bad dreams, be never had seen himself before so clearly. And blundering into the adjoining living-room, he found a white-haired old lady plastered against the wall in a corner with her arms rigidly stretched above her head and her eyes shut tight by the violence of her yelling. In fact the grey shepherd looked bigger, more wolf-like than ever, within the boundaries of a room. Now he was sniffing and nosing among the cushions of a davenport at the end of the room. Kennedy repossessed himself of the chain.


Illustration

He found a white-haired old lady with her
arms rigidly stretched above her head...


"Madam," said Kennedy, "when you care to stop screaming, will you tell me who generally sits at this end of the davenport?"

The old lady still yelled, but now it was with her eyes open, and when she saw the wolf turned into a dog her screech slowly faded like the noise of a baby which runs down the scale and dies away as it sees the bottle. Other footfalls coming from a distance, perhaps were bringing thought of comfort and safety to her.

"Oh heavens," she said, staggering towards a chair, "do something—take that beast away—I'm dying—I can't breathe—."

"Let me reassure you, Madam," said Kennedy, "your colour is very good, and this little excitement, at your age, may take the place of exercise. You will eat a very good dinner this evening."

A Latin face, dark beneath a cook's hat, had appeared at the doorway, looking in cautiously before leaping at danger. Past him hurried a pretty woman of 27 or 28. She wore an orange-coloured dress of some sheer fabric with cool patterns of heavy green yarn stitched on it. Her dark hair she wore knotted in a classical chignon to make her more beautiful than ever, in Kennedy's opinion, and her haste in coming, like a soft wind, blew the dress against her young body. Kennedy remembered, suddenly, to remove his hat. This permitted the sweat to run down his face, but his spirit, was pleasantly cooled by what he saw.

"Dear Mrs. Lancaster," the lovely lady was saying, "what on earth has happened?"

"Do something for me," said Mrs. Lancaster. "l can't breathe... and my heart... Oh, Julie Vernon, I'm dying... that dreadful monster sprang at me..."

Julie Vernon turned to Kennedy. He was enjoying the sight of her so much that he could not help smiling. The dog, in the meantime, was trying to get to other places in the room, following a living scent, and since he was hard held, the rug at which he pawed began to rise in large waves. It was characteristic that Kennedy had almost forgotten the dog and everything else in order to enjoy and study in detail this picture of a pretty woman.

"Orange and yellow-green," said Kennedy, "is one of the useful contrasts, don't you think?"

She spared a glance for her dress and another at Kennedy before she said, quietly: "Will you take your dog out, for a moment?"

Kennedy took his dog out. There was no hurry. Resident in this tavern, he now was assured, was the murderer, and he could trust the nose of the dog to find him out. From the hall he heard the whimpering noises of Mrs. Lancaster as she was led or carried up to her room, but Kennedy employed himself in enjoying the features of the scene before him. Yonder at the top of the hill of blue shale the dog had found the trace of his master; here by the tavern he had found it again. There on the hilltop the hills stood up like bright islands from the sea and the sun was throwing fire on the eastern mountains. From the corner of his eye he saw Julie Vernon come out on the verandah.

He turned to her, still smiling. She seemed incurious. Her manner was definite and a little cold.

"I am Samuel Kennedy, Miss Vernon," he said.

The dog, finding a new scent on the ground, gave him a sudden perk that almost unbalanced him.

"Do you usually turn your dog loose in an hotel, Mr. Kennedy?" she asked.

"I have offended you," said Kennedy.

"No," she said, "I was curious. I just wondered."

"The truth is that he is not my dog," said Kennedy.

"Only an acquaintance?" she suggested, and her smile turned up the corners of her mouth like the smile of Vivien Lee.

"You know the grey-blue davenport in there?" asked Kennedy.

"Yes," she answered.

"I wonder which of the guests is most in the habit of sitting there?"

"I haven't the slightest idea. Why?"

"Because the person who does is apt lo be the master—or the mistress—of this dog."

She did not seem particularly interested.

"No-one has brought a dog to Seven Mile House," she said.

"The very point I have in mind," smiled Kennedy. "Who started with a dog towards Seven Mile House and wound up without him?"

She interrupted the course of his inquiry.

"Do you know that your dog may have cost me Mrs. Lancaster and 20 dollars a day?" she asked.

"I'm sorry your prices are so high," said Kennedy. "I hoped to stay here for a day or two."

"I hope that Mrs. Lancaster doesn't die of shock," said Julie Vernon.

"She will not, you can be sure," said Kennedy. "She needs only a little attention."

"Are you a doctor?" asked Julie Vernon.

"No," he answered.

"I thought not," she said. "What attention would you suggest?"

"A drink of hot, aromatic tea. A cold towel on her head. A hot-water bottle at her feet. And a caressing voice to speak to her softly. This incident will give you such a chance to baby her, Miss Vernon, that she will want to stay with you for ever, even at 20 dollars a day. Which brings me back to my point. What is your lowest charge for a man and a dog?"

"We don't allow even lap dogs in the hotel." she said.

"Don't you?" he asked. "What harm do they do?"

"It's the rule," she answered.

"So there is no place at all for me here?" he asked.

"There could he in one of the cabins," she said.

She pointed at several little out-buildings that once might have served varying purposes, from blacksmith shop to smokehouse, in the days when Seven Mile House first won its name. But now they were brightly painted, with patches of lawn near their front doors and flowers blooming here and there.

"Are there stoves in them?" he asked.

"No," she said.

"At this altitude," said Kennedy, "the evenings will be very chilly, and the nights more so."

"Yes," she agreed.

"It is quite delightful," said Kennedy, "to meet such a frank hostess. What is your cheapest price?"

"Five dollars," she said.

His long face fell and grew still longer.

"Or, considering you have the dog," she said, "we might make it three."

"How amusing, and how pleasant," said Kennedy. "Thank you very much."

She laughed, but Kennedy only smiled.

"By the way, there is something else, very serious," he told her.

"More serious than Mrs. Lancaster?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Kennedy. "Up the ravine there, just beside this tavern, not a hundred steps from this spot, there has been a small landslide."

"Yes, Mr. Kennedy," she said. "We heard it last night and went to look at it by moonlight."

"Do you remember just when it was?" he asked.

"Just ten minutes after eight," she said. "Why?"

"And could you tell me where everybody in the tavern was at that time?"

She made a pause, but she had grown used to him already as an eccentric.

"I wasn't here myself, but nearly everybody else was on the verandah smoking after dinner," she said. "Why?"

"Because buried in the landslide I found a dead man," said Kennedy.


Illustration

"Because buried in the landslide I found a dead man," said Kennedy.


CHAPTER III

THE cook, two stable-boys and a farmhand brought in the dead body. They used a door for a stretcher and Julie Vernon walked beside them. Kennedy and the dog brought up the rear.

"What shall we do? Where shall we take him?" asked the girl.

"To a cool place, I suppose," said Kennedy. "And then let the police know about it."

They took the body to the toolshed. Julie Vernon brought out a sheet to cover the man after she had sent one of the stable-boys riding across the hills to carry word to the police and to bring back some sort of a conveyance to take him away. She seemed surprised to find Kennedy there.

It was a rattletrap of a shanty with cracks a finger's breadth broad that let the westering sun stain the earthen floor with yellow stripes. It housed saws, picks, shovels, long spades to turn up deep garden soil, rakes, coils of hose, hammers and sledges and mauls, axes and a few sawbucks, across two of which rested the bier of the dead man. Big spiderwebs, loaded with dust, sagged from the ceiling and the rafters. Kennedy forgot these things as he sat on another sawbuck with the restless dog at his feet and made notations in his book. He had an excellent memory, but he kept it razor-sharp with these continual notes. The dead man, he had learnt, was one William Harrison, a mining promoter who made headquarters in the little cross-roads village of Canyon Gap, some ten miles to the north. Here he picked up and sometimes grubstaked prospectors to run legends and rumours to the hard ground of fact. On occasion he went off to the big cities to show his ore samples and tell his tales of gold. He had come to Seven Mile House five days before, on foot. The old road was blocked by a hundred slides, since the early days, but guests for Seven Mile House generally wrote in long ahead and were met with horses and pack mules at the nearest stop on the motor bus line. Almost no-one from the surrounding district could afford the prices of Seven Mile House in its reincarnation under the management of Julie Vernon, but men who wanted excellent fishing, deer hunting in season, or the pleasure of mountain trails, were tempted by this remote tavern. The very name of it spelled a certain romance. Ladies who wanted long, long silences; writers who had waited in vain for inspiration in cities; artists who wanted to try on canvas the impossible distances and colours of that Western country, were apt to hear of Seven Mile House and chance its remote charms. For three years Julie Vernon had kept quite a full house, winter and summer. She laid a good table, provided good riding and pack animals, excellent guides, and charged three prices for every service. People who serve the very rich learn to do so without conscience; Julie Vernon had forgotten her conscience.

So William Harrison had walked across eleven miles of tough going and appeared at the tavern, five days before, and it was rather surprising that a man of moderate means should have chosen such an expensive resort. Yet it was not the first time he had come, and that was why information about him from people in the tavern came so easily to Kennedy. He noted these facts in his notebook, but what he particularly noted had nothing to do with the past of the dead man. It concerned itself with the rather odd behaviour of Julie Vernon when she came in sight of Harrison's body.

"Fear of more than death," was the phrase that Kennedy selected.

The dead body in itself was of course enough to upset the nerves of the girl, but there had been something a little more than mere physical shock when she stood over Harrison. The shadow from the western side of the ravine had left her standing in sunshine, but covered the dead man with filmy darkness, so that he seemed to be lying in clear water. And after that first natural recoil there had seemed to be in her, under the examining of Kennedy, something like a quick dread of the eyes around her, a startled glancing over the shoulder, and then a hard, stern control which she fixed upon herself. To Kennedy these reactions were at least kindred to guilt. And though it was fixed in his mind that the owner of the dog was the actual killer, he could not he sure; besides, more than one hand can be engaged in the same crime.

These were his thoughts and his notations as he sat on the sawbuck in the toolhouse, and the sense of guilt in the woman gave her to Kennedy a sort of added attraction, like piquancy in food. When she came now into the tool house with the sheet, she made an abrupt pause.

"Still here?" she asked.


Illustration

She made an abrupt pause. "Still here?" she asked.

"It's an opportunity, you know," said Kennedy, looking up at her with his smile, and searching casually but deftly among the thousand shadows and lights which compose the human eye.

"An opportunity?" she repeated.

Without waiting for his answer, as though already sure that it would be merely one more oddity among a growing collection, she drew the sheet up over the body of William Harrison. She tucked it in about the feet and shoulders, oddly like a mother caring for a child at night; but here the sheet covered the head as well. It was cloth worn thin by much laundering and fitted the features so closely that instead of hooding the face it merely seemed to turn it white. The very likeness came through in a way, as when a sculptor has roughed out the stone, but not yet come to the detail.

Such things as this always interested Kennedy. He stood up, the better to look at this dead man turned into a statue, as time often makes our great men into heroic monuments. The fingers of Kennedy itched for his notebook.

"Yes, an opportunity—this chance to sit here," he said. "We can't make friends with death, I suppose. But we can try to get used to it."

She looked at him with something between a smile and impatience.

"You talk rather like a book," she said.

"Do I? I'm sorry," said Kennedy, from the heart. He had heard this before, and it abased his eyes with introspection. Glancing down in that way, he noticed among the picks which leaned against the wall one which was not rusted like the rest. The narrower point of it was cleaned by recent use and just inside the point there was a little lump of blue dust.

He remembered the blue shale of the landslide, the boulders which must have been set rolling to cause it. This was undoubtedly the very tool which had been used for the murder. What perfect timing, what invention, what brain the killer had used so that his hands might seem to be clean!

He looked up at the wide, intellectual forehead of Julie Vernon.

"I'll be going over to my cabin," he said.

"Dinner at seven, or seven-fifteen," she said, briskly. "There are cocktails at a quarter to seven in the lounge."

He stood at the door, holding it open for her. She seemed at first about to protest. Then, as though this gesture were a command she did not know how to refuse, she went through the door ahead of him, but there remained in Kennedy a distinct impression that she had wanted to stay behind him, she really had wanted to be alone with the dead.


CHAPTER IV

BEFORE dinner he fed the grey dog on the narrow brick terrace behind the kitchen and Maria the kitchen maid stood by. She was a voluble creature, with the bloom slightly faded and a small, dark harvest beginning to appear on her upper lip. Words flooded readily from her, and as Kenned fed the dog he asked questions. He did that feeding by hand, some three pounds of ground, raw meat. He held it in small portions on the flat of his palm. At first the great dog sat with his head turned, his eyes averted, as though he had forgotten, in his scorn of all human beings except one, that there was such a thing as food in the world. At last, when the drool from his mouth already betrayed him, he made a snakelike movement and clipped the meat neatly out of the hand of Kennedy. It was as though the steel shears of a machine had snapped up the food. Maria had screamed, for she had expected, she said, that the hand of Kennedy would be taken as well as the food it held. However, the dog was as accurate as a butcher's knife. He accepted every mouthful in the same way, except that towards the end he no longer turned his head away and there was even a lifting of his eyes, furtively, to the face of Kennedy between bites.

It was not a quick process, and in the meantime Kennedy learnt a great deal from the garrulous Maria. Of course she was willing to talk at great length about the death and all the circumstances connected with the fatal landslide. Kennedy, adding up her names and places, discovered with unhappiness that there had been twenty persons as guests or employees of the tavern, that evening. William Harrison was the twenty-first person. However, most of the twenty could be accounted for.

The gardeners all were at work by lantern and moonlight repairing a break in the dam, for fear the water in the swimming pool would escape before the morning. The cook and Maria were in the kitchen, the chambermaid-waitress and the waiter were busily serving coffee and brandy to the guests on the front verandah. These guests were nine in number after William Harrison left them and took his cigar up the canyon for an after dinner stroll. Alexander McDonald stood at one end of the verandah, singing between puffs of his cigarette. The rest sat with their coffee. Three people were not on the verandah. They were Camilla Cuyas, that Spanish refugee who wore the lovely jewels, Julie Vernon, and Daniel Fargo, writer and ex-cattleman. Julie and Fargo—it was an accepted fact that he was trying to marry her—were out walking together. Camilla Cuyas had claimed that she was in her room, too tired to come downstairs even when she heard the roar of the landslide. Everyone else had run to look at the place where the rubble had piled in the ravine. Out of all of this flood of information, Kennedy, docketing names rapidly, decided that suspicion certainly could fall only on those who were not present and accounted for. That left only three names. He listed them in his notebook, afterwards, in the following fashion.


"Julie Vernon, certainly possessing a strange interest in the dead man, with hints and small motions of guilt about her.

"Daniel Fargo, blind with love of Julie, an ex-cattleman with violence in his past life. Perhaps the owner of the dog. For something connected with Julie he readily would have killed Harrison.

"Camilla Cuyas, a girl apparently full of moods, sometimes very dark ones. She is unhappy and never has forgiven the world for her loss of a home, etc. She was much with Harrison during his stay here. Jealousy?"


In his cabin, after feeding the dog, Kennedy finished making these notes. Even more interesting, to him, were the facts he had gathered about Harrison. Before being a promoter of mines of dubious value, he had been a lawyer with an Eastern practice. He was a handsome, alert fellow, self-confident and obviously a practiced hand with women. He had been constantly with the two beauties at Seven Mile House, Camilla and Julie. He was the sort of a character with a dozen handles by any of which hate could take hold upon him.

Kennedy finished his notes in haste. He was amused to find himself in the role of detective and this very list of suspects he could remember to have found in detective stories. He wished that he had more than three. Yet after all he had a very unfair advantage over all fiction detectives—he had at hand an infallible means of discovering the criminal who was responsible or partly responsible for the death of Harrison. He had the grey dog. The moment it fawned on any of these people the mystery was ended. The dog in fact was his main focal point of interest.

It roved through the little cabin, now, sometimes rearing to look through the window, sometimes pausing to look into the face of Kennedy with grieving, impatient eyes, full of speech. There was not one instant of yielding to familiarity or affection. The love of this beast had been given once and for ever. When Kennedy ordered it to come or go, or sit or lie, it paid no attention or else threw him a look as though it never had heard human speech before. In five minutes, however, this mute instrument would be pointing the way to the gibbet for someone in Seven Mile House.

He put it on the lead again and went outside. In the cabin the rushing sound of the water over the dam had given him the sense of a strong and steady wind blowing down the hills. Actually the world was still and the stars sparkled like frost in the sky. Even without a breeze the smell of the pines made breathing a delight.

He went around the back of the tavern. It leaned right against the hill, so that the first verandah was absent, here, and from the edge of the second verandah, in several places, it was merely a step to the sharp slope. He climbed up among the trees and found himself once again at the crest from which the landslide had descended. The moonlight was bright enough for him to see the debris in the valley and a shadow marked the place where he had drawn out the buried man. Far away, mountains retired like clouds in the moonshine.

Certainly every soul at the tavern not present and accounted for was worthy of suspicion, even Camilla Cuyas. From her room, she could have crossed the verandah, stepped on to the hillside, and reached the crest in sixty seconds, while Harrison, leaving the front of the tavern, would have required three times as long to follow the windings of the ravine until he came to the narrows of it. Sixty seconds up, and less than that back to the tavern for Alec McDonald, for instance. Julie and Daniel Fargo, of course, could have posted themselves at their ease. But the time had now come to use the dog for definite action. Kennedy rounded Seven Mile House until he was under the windows of the lounge. It was a large room with a big, deep fireplace in which now a pile of logs a foot in diameter were burning. Julie Vernon kept the other lights dim so that the yellow of the flames would give a flattering light to the ladies. It was cocktail time. Julie Vernon herself passed titbits. The waiter was on hand to serve the drinks, but most of this was done by Fargo. The possessive attitude of partnership was not the only means of identifying him as Julie's preferred suitor. The big dark man kept his eyes drifting after her whenever she moved. He looked as remote from this little party as an eagle sitting on a crag above busy little fishhawks. It was easy to believe what Maria had said about him and his horses and his guns and his stern ways.

It was even easy to identify, from Maria's chatter, the guests who were unimportant to Kennedy, such as old Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Bowman, starched little figures in one comer pretending to drink a glass of sherry apiece. They were brown from the outdoors where they painted tremendous landscapes every day. There was Dr. Geoffrey Lewis, as fat as a toad and as ugly, Harvey Dunton, the lecturer, talking with professional gestures as though from a platform to Christopher Mills, who had travelled the world round and round and picked up nothing but names of places, that peculiar mental bric--brac which makes some idiots feel rich. Mrs. Martha Lane, who also painted, was a woman with a good, tanned, middle-aged face, and she was making compassionate conversation with Hallowell Johnson, already stupid with drink. All that his millions had brought him was a bleared eye and a thick-tongued ability to talk about Rhine wines.

None of these people mattered to Kennedy. He kept watching Julie Vernon and Daniel Fargo. Fargo was the man for him; and yet he remembered that, in detective fiction, at least, the first suspect was rarely the guilty fellow. The other two suspects were at the piano. Alec McDonald singing Italian popular songs and Camilla Cuyas accompanying him on the piano. It seemed interesting that the four under shadow were coupled in pairs. She was not quite as attractive as Maria had led him to expect; a bruised look of sleeplessness about the eyes detracted from her, but she partly covered this with a Latin vivacity which kept her smiling. Alec McDonald was another cheerful soul, but his good will seemed to come from the heart, not inherited manners. He was not fat, but rather plumped over and rounded by excellent living that kept his cheeks pink. He sang very well, rolling out his words with the true Italian "r" trilling through them. He loved his own singing, giving himself blindly and happily to the high notes, but able to look about and smile and nod his sympathy with anyone who showed appreciation during the ordinary course of a song. He was the sort of a fellow who made a party go. Not even little Gerald Bowman seemed so incapable of crime as this fine figure of a man, but the suspicion of Kennedy suddenly switched from Daniel Fargo to the singer. He began to suspect McDonald violently. A man with such a genial exterior, if there were real evil in him, would be a devil indeed.

He lifted the forepaws of the dog until the great grey head was above the level of the window sill and it could see everything inside the room. There was an instant convulsion of the shepherd. Recognition of his owner came upon him like an explosion of joy. Before Kennedy could catch hold on the chain again, the big fellow was off and away from him, scattering sand and gravel as he dashed around the corner of the house.


Illustration

Recognition of his owner came upon him like an explosion of joy.

Kennedy followed as fast as he could. He was furious. He had intended to bring the dog to the door of the room and mark the sudden stroke of agony of apprehension in some face. He had intended to loose the shepherd then and let it kiss its owner to death, like an innocent Judas. But this drama was stolen away from him. He would arrive only in time to see the culprit spotted. The recognition scene itself was lost to him.

As he bounded up the steps of the verandah and hurried into Seven Mile House, he heard an outbreak of feminine cries of terror. When he reached the lounge the room still was in commotion, but instead of finding the dog at the feet of someone, it lay in the farthest corner as still as a stone, its head lifted, the blazing excitement of its eyes fixed on empty space!


CHAPTER V

JULIE VERNON was more than a little angry. If she had had a liking for Kennedy it was gone now. She said sternly: "Mr. Kennedy, you must know that this can't be allowed. If you're amusing yourself in your own peculiar manner..."

"Oh, Julie Vernon," said McDonald, "don't be hard on a poor devil whose dog gets away from him!"

Mrs. Lancaster, flushed and happy with two cocktails, began to hiss dreadful things about the dog and the man to her nearest neighbour.

"He's not my dog, you know," said Kennedy. He looked calmly about him and added: "He came in here as though he were on the trail of his owner. I wonder who it could be?"

He scanned every face among his four suspects, but gathered not a whit of harvest.

"Please take him out," said Julie Vernon.

"I'd like to," said Kennedy, "but I've only known him half a day, and he looks dangerous just now, don't you think?"

"Come boy! Here boy! Here boy!" called McDonald loudly, slapping his knee.

The dog still stared at some fascinating emptiness in space. McDonald shrugged his shoulders and made a gesture of surrender.

"The dog doesn't speak my language," he said, and laughed.

For all his bigness and sleekness, he seemed rather one who had to have his hands occupied. These fingers of his automatically produced a ball of twine from a pocket and while he watched the dog and the others he made the twine, with a noose in the end of it, jump up and down and spin like the rope of a well-trained cowpuncher. The picture of this stuck in the mind of Kennedy because it was done without a thought and yet there was a good deal of skill involved.

Others were coaxing the big shepherd. Daniel Fargo went the closest, holding out his hand very near until the beast uncovered its fangs with a silent snarl.

"How noble and how proud and how savage," said Camilla Cuyas. "Big one—attention—venga!"

The dog, first jerking up its head as though in surprise, rose slowly to its feet.

"Ah, good! It is really your dog?" asked Julie Vernon. "Do you own it?"

"But I never saw it before!" cried Camilla.

"Look out! Look out!" exclaimed someone. "I think that brute is dangerous."

For it was crossing the room towards Camilla as though it were stalking a bird, lifting up its feet one by one and putting them down with a catlike caution as it glided forward. Either it meant mischief or else it was being drawn forward against its will by some extraordinary compulsion. Camilla Cuyas uttered a faint screech and fled behind a table and here Kennedy, who felt that he could not pretend fear of the dog any longer, caught up the chain that dragged behind it. He told everyone he was very sorry and started to leave the room. At the door he paused.

"Do keep the beast out," Julie Vernon had said.

He answered, turning: "I'll do my best. But you can understand how it is. He's found his owner and he'll want to return."

"Oh, but I'm not his owner," exclaimed Camilla.

"Perhaps not," agreed Kennedy.

"But there's not a single person in the room that he'll come to," shrilled Mrs. Lancaster. "Except that poor frightened child there."

"However," said Kennedy, "a very well-trained dog can be ordered by a whistle or a word or even by a gesture, I've heard, to stay at a distance. There's no doubt about it. Through the window, there, he recognised someone in this room. And then be broke away from me. Can't you all help me in trying to find out who might possibly have owned a dog like this—and then shot it down—and left it for dead yonder in the hills?"

He went on out, leaving a dead silence. Then a rising buzz followed as mutual suspicion entered that room, like bees coming out of a hive to do their hunting. There might be some danger to him, he felt, in announcing himself so frankly; on the other hand if he kept the dog quite unlinked from the trail of the murder, perhaps he would be better off in the end; and this seemed to be a case in which many heads might be better than one. If there was anything that malicious questioning could bring to light about a past ownership of dogs, in all that company, he felt reasonably sure that he would hear about it before very long.

The shock and the bewilderment of failure still accompanied him back to the cabin. He had been very sure, when the dog struggled away from him at the window, that he was on the very verge of learning everything. Now it seemed that his ace of aces was not a trump at all, and the dog might be of not the slightest use to him. He would have given the very breath of his nostrils to know what unseen signal from the owner bad sent the big animal to crouch in a corner.

In the cabin, he closed the shutters of the window and locked the door to make sure that the dog should not escape. And as he turned the key, he heard the scraping of the nails against the door inside, almost as high as his head. He found in the night around him a new presence that quickened his pulse a little and created thin electric tensions all through his body. He felt at first that it was something he was hearing in the fall of water over the dam; and again it seemed to Kennedy that something odd was in the stars above him, but when he looked up they were the same dim frost across the sky with bright icicle gleamings here and there.

He was almost at the entrance to Seven Mile House again before he realised that it was fear which followed at his heels and waited before him behind the shrubs. No amount of plain thinking could have disturbed him or taught him as much as this, but now he realised that someone in the room where the singing went on again so cheerfully was now his enemy, an enemy with one murder already scored and therefore ready, in an emergency, to take the same desperate step. He breathed deeply a few times, using the diaphragm, and yet he still felt a sense of breathlessness as he entered the tavern. Even as be passed through the lighted rooms, there remained the sense of someone peering at him through the doorway behind and of another waiting for him just beside the next threshold. In this way he came again to the lounge.

There was a slight pause in the conversation when he appeared. But Alec McDonald, his head back as he took a hearty high note which sobbed an adieu to "Napoli," kept right on with his song. The talk resumed, softly, out of respect to the singer. And Julie Vernon came to him with a smile and a cocktail.

She offered it to him on a tray, with some bits of toasted cheese and paprika on small crackers.

"It's an Old Fashioned," she said. "You look as though you needed something strong, Mr. Kennedy."

"Thank you so much," he said. "The dog is a brute to handle."

"Isn't he?" she agreed. "But don't you think you've made some of the trouble for yourself?"

He grew conscious that there was a change in her. She kept on smiling, but her eyes were colder than anything he could remember—as chilly as the stars which whitened the sky this night.

"Trouble?" he asked, wondering over her and yet searching her at the same time. "Do you really feel that I've made trouble on purpose?"

"No. I don't suppose you intended it," she said. She laughed a little, a fine crystal, chilling sound. "But you're always so frank, Mr. Kennedy, aren't you? Was it just being frank when you asked everyone to help you find the owner of this wretched dog?"

"It seemed a natural thing to do," said Kennedy. "I do want to find out, you know."

"So you simply tell my guests that someone among them is a beast who would shoot down his own dog and leave it for dead in the hills?"

"I hadn't thought of it that way," said Kennedy. "I was simply trying to be direct."

"But are you ever entirely direct, Mr. Kennedy?" she asked.

"Oh, I see," he said, "you wish to be a little rude."

"Not at all," she answered. "After this odd performance of yours, I wouldn't be surprised if I had an empty house inside the week. Let me be direct myself. Will you let me ask you to leave Seven Mile House in the morning?"'

"Yes, certainly."

"I'm so sorry," she said, still smiling, and turning away from him.

The song of Mr. McDonald had not yet ended, but Camilla Cuyas, as she ran through a final flourish of the keys, looked up under her brows at Kennedy with such a bright, steady malice that he remembered again how he had felt in the open night, when fear came to stand beside him.


CHAPTER VI

DINNER would have been a difficult thing for Kennedy to sit through if an ordinary type of man had been inside his skin, so many hostile eyes were on him, but even this hostility was something for him to observe and to study. Above all, Julie Vernon, her man Fargo, and Camilla Cuyas had no use for him. Fargo, his head high, his eyes challenging, seemed ready to break out at him at the first opportunity. No-one talked to him except McDonald. Kennedy was grateful.

McDonald said: "What do you do with yourself in the world, Mr. Kennedy?"

"What would you say?" asked Kennedy.

"I'm no judge," said McDonald. "What do other people say about you?"

"They say that I've studied too many things and know too little about any of them, geology, or ornithology, or architecture, or history. As a matter of fact, they accuse me of taking more leisure than I can afford. I haven't anything that would rate as a passion, except travel and detective stories."

One or two people smiled. No-one laughed.

"Maybe he's been in your Italy, Mr. McDonald," asked Dr Geoffrey Lewis.

"Oh yes," said Kennedy. "I brought away a part of it, too."

"Oh, did you? What part?" asked Mrs. Lancaster.

"All I could carry in my head," said Kennedy.

"Oh, is that all!" said Mrs. Lancaster, relaxing. "What does that amount to?"

"A lot of things," said Kennedy, with his smile. "The curve of a gondola's prow, and the gondolier's voice bellowing at the corner of a canal. Dante's house in Florence, a crooked street behind the market, rain over the Campagna, pigeons in Siena, a wine shop in Ostia, a magnolia tree blooming at Como, and Judas kissing Christ in Padua."

"I thought you might be a collector," said MacDonald.

"Oh, I am," said Kennedy in his gentle voice. "I collect all sorts of things that don't have to go into trunks. There's no use packing and unpacking all the time. And as the play says, in the end you can't take it with you."

"I see," said Camilla Cuyas, in a voice as dry as her smile was bright. "A moral philosopher, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Not at all," said Kennedy.

"I got to Italy once myself, on a cattle boat," said Fargo. "But all I found there was sour wine and headaches. Anyway, I learned enough of the lingo to ask my way around but I never found what Kennedy saw."

"And what are you interested in mostly now?" asked Julie Vernon, absently.

"Murder," said Kennedy. He had hoped to find some sharp reaction and he found it indeed. Each of his suspects started violently, but so did everyone else at the table. "In a story I've been reading," he added.

"Speaking of landslides..." began the doctor.

"Oh, but who is?" said Mrs. Lancaster. "Oh, let's not speak of them."

"I was wondering about mining accidents," said the doctor, glaring at the old woman. "And Mr. MacDonald is a mining engineer. There are such horrible cave-ins, aren't there? I always wonder why the timbers are not more looked to so that everything can be more safely secured."

"The trouble is," said MacDonald, "that when the ground starts moving timbers may be mere matchwood in front of it. When a hundred million tons start slipping, for instance. I've seen timbers that were two feet through, of good, seasoned, solid wood, smash up slowly, like soft candy."

"Horrible!" said Mrs. Lancaster. "It makes me frightfully ill to think of it."

"It's made a lot of people dead, even," said MacDonald. He turned his cheerful face and smile around the table. He really had a very genial manner and Kennedy warmed toward him. "Unstable ground," he added, "is queer stuff. When miners enter an old stope, for instance, they never speak aloud. They whisper, because vibration, even just the faint touch of a vibrating human voice, may be enough to start a thousand tons falling.

"You hear one pebble fall, far away. Then something like the rustling of a skirt—if you've ever heard that rustling, any miner will listen to your stories the rest of your life, because you're a lucky chap to have lived through it. After the rustling, the big stones begin, or the whole ruin may come down with a rush."

"What dreadful danger!" said the doctor. "Strange that men can be induced to work underground."

"Oh, life is always cheap," said MacDonald.

"But can't the uncertain ground be studied and the miners forewarned?" asked Kennedy.

"Yes, of course," said MacDonald. "You get so that you can almost read the mind of a drift after you've gone into it and looked around for a while. You have practice but beyond that you have instinct that tells you when the ground will move—say in thirty days. It's best not to be wrong about it."

"Were you ever wrong about it?" asked Mrs. Lancaster.

"Yes. Once," said MacDonald.

"Do tell us," she begged.

"You wouldn't like it," said MacDonald. "I didn't like it at the time."

But still he kept on smiling, and Kennedy remembered that smile when he was back in his cabin. What he chiefly regretted was that he had not poised and prepared that single word "murder" in such a way that it would have told more sharply. It was tact that he should have used in making that remark. Tact would have enabled him to choose a moment when his three suspects were right under his eye, and then it might have meant something.

As it happened, he had dropped his depth charge into a whole school of fish, and every one of them had been alarmed. There was no use looking for degrees. He remembered, with a smile, Mrs. Lancaster's small scream. He was beginning to wonder if the old lady did not really dote on violent sensations.

He turned out the light and sat in the darkness for a time, adding up all his faults and frailties. He could not help wishing that the Creator had added several things to his gift-basket. He would have chosen a little more grace, better looks, and above all he would have prayed for bravery.

This thought pursued him. On his other adventures he had not needed it so much, but now he found himself horribly tempted to pack his knapsack and leave Seven Mile House, even in the middle of the night. For no matter how he had tried to smooth it over, his use of the word "murder" at the table this night must have revealed a great deal to the killer of William Harrison.

The dog, roving back and forth unhappily through the cabin, stood up to look out the window. When he had dropped down, he turned to Kennedy and poked him with his nose. Kennedy obediently got up and looked out.

It was not late, but every light was gone in the tavern. A clouded moon shone somewhere in the east and showed him a woman going toward the toolshed.


Illustration

Gun in hand, Julie stole toward the dead man...


Kennedy got out of the cabin instantly. He hurried down by the bank of the stream and came up toward the toolshed from that side, which was farthest from Seven Mile House. There was a dim light now inside the shed. It was so faint that hardly any radiance escaped through the big cracks in the side of the shanty, but when Kennedy had his eye at the first aperture, he saw Julie Vernon leaning over Harrison's body. She had drawn the sheet back to his hips and as she bent above him, Kennedy would have given a great deal to see her face. However, he dared not change his position. She unbuttoned Harrison's coat, turned back the flaps of it, and drew his wallet from his inside pocket. Here Kennedy in his excitement leaned forward with such weight that the flimsy board gave with a creak under his hand. Julie Vernon started around, shining the electric torch straight at him. Brighter than the light, in the eyes of Kennedy, was the businesslike automatic which she lifted. And more important still was her face, left in such shadow that he could rather guess at than see the flare of the nostrils, the hard, quick resolution. Through the crack just before his face, he swore that she must be seeing him, but after a moment she turned away to open the wallet and after an instant of search to take from it what seemed to him a folded bit of newsprint. The wallet she then restored to the pocket, rebuttoned the coat, and drew up the sheet as it had been before.


Illustration

Julie Vernon started around, shining the electric torch straight at him.

Kennedy, walking as on thin ice, tiptoed back from the toolshed. He had gained the shelter of one of the willows by the bank of the stream, when a light brushed through the branches. He half expected a bullet to come crashing after it, but then he saw Julie Vernon outside the shed turning her flashlight back and forth. He had reached his shelter barely in time. He feared that she might examine the ground for footprints, but after an instant she turned back to Seven Mile House and disappeared in the entrance hall.

And suddenly Kennedy knew that he must follow her. That gun and the look of her, ready to use it, had frightened him badly enough, and yet the imp of the perverse was driving him straight after her, for he must in some manner read what she had taken from Harrison.

So he found his feet carrying him steadily up the steps, across the verandah, and through the unlocked front door of the tavern. He passed through the living room. Beyond it, Julie Vernon stood in the unlighted lounge, but the dying fire on the hearth gave it a certain amount of illumination.

"Oh, Miss Vernon!" said Kennedy.

She turned sharply about and threw something behind her toward the hearth. Into the flames it seemed to go, and he felt with a pang greater than his fear that he had lost his opportunity.

"Yes? Yes?" she answered, lifting her voice high with the second word.

He paused in the doorway.

"It is a bit damp and chilly out there in the cabin," he said. "I put on my clothes again—and then I thought perhaps I could get an extra blanket?"

The tension passed slowly from her. Yet she made a brief pause before she answered: "Very well. I'll bring you one."

She crossed the living room, saying brusquely over her shoulder: "If you'll come this way, please..."

"Certainly," mumbled Kennedy around a cigarette, vainly snapping a lighter to ignite it. And as she went on through the doorway, he slipped back to the fire on the hearth. There was still a thin ghost of a hope that the crumpled paper might have rolled through the coals and onto the dead ashes. In fact, he found a tiny twist of newsprint dusted over with ashes in a corner of the hearth. He pocketed it.


Illustration

He slipped back to the fire on the hearth.

When he reached the hall, Julie Vernon was coming down the stairs with a white blanket over her arm.

His cigarette was burning, but to explain his delay he kept on whirling the wheel of his lighter with an impatient thumb.

"These gadgets," he said. "A man will make a fortune if he manufactures one that really goes."

"I daresay," said Julie Vernon, waiting for him to go.

"Good-night, and thanks," said Kennedy, turning to the door.

"Good-night," she said.

"You don't like me at all, do you?" he said, holding the door open.

"Isn't that an odd question?" she asked.

"Oh, I expect the truth," answered Kennedy. "It generally hurts, but I like to have it."

She came suddenly to him and looked up into his face. She was serious. There was not even a hint of a smile, and this masculine gravity made her look older. He could see the small wrinkles around her eyes and one shadowy mark in the center of her forehead that he had not noted before.

"Are you honest, Mr. Kennedy?" she asked.

He was about to smile and say that he hoped he was fairly honest but an odd impulse towards confession swept over him.

"I don't know," he found himself saying. "Honesty's something to pray for, I suppose, not something to own. Mine gets away from me. God made me a simple fellow but sometimes I'm dodging behind that simplicity and having all sorts of ideas."

"I thought so," she said. "What are you after, Mr. Kennedy? Just what is on your mind?"

"There's sleep on my mind, just now," he said, and tried to smile,

It was no use.

"That's hardly true," she answered. "I'm afraid that you don't intend to close your eyes at all."

"Well, I'll do my best. And good-night again."

"I'm afraid that it's goodbye, isn't it?" she asked, gravely.

He got outside the door, somehow and went hastily across the porch. He was halfway down the steps before he realized that a tall figure had been standing on the verandah, wrapped in a coat or cloak. Now he glanced back over his shoulder and made sure that the form was there. He did not speak, and there was no word from the other, but he knew in his cold, shrinking heart that Daniel Fargo was there, on watch.


CHAPTER VII

WHEN he reached the cabin, a new fear came up in him, a grisly conviction that something waited for him inside. At the door he hissed. He heard the dog instantly on the move but this did not deny the possibility that the dog's owner might be with him. When he pulled open the door, the big body of the shepherd almost knocked him flat as it sprang through the gap. He made a frantic clutch at the chain and caught it by a lucky chance. The shock jerked him to his knees and one hand but it stopped the dog, which was busily at work with its nose to the ground.


Illustration

Someone decidedly had been there in the past few moments. He dragged the big dog back into the cabin and lighted the lamp again. What looked like a pool of blood glistened red in a corner. It proved to be a fine cut of steak. As he lifted it, the dog came up hungrily but after a sniff or two turned away without touching it.

Wolves, they say, will come to know poison by its smell; and this dog seemed more wild than tame.

This was the second effort the killer had made to remove the dog from his trail. Perhaps he had worked the window open, spoken to the poor beast and caressed it before he tossed in the poisoned meat?

Kennedy secured the shutters of the window again. Still he was not alone. There were crevices in these walls, not so large to be sure as those of the toolshed, but amply big enough, here and there, to let an eye look in, and where an eye can look, a gun can shoot. The wind which had been rising now was a strong sweep down the valley and it whistled around and into the cabin of Kennedy with a chorus of small, shrilling voices.

That twist of paper seemed to him now more important than poisoned meat or pointing guns. He hooded the light of his lamp so that it shone freely on one point only. Then he undid the bit of newsprint which had been in his pocket. It was torn by the tightness of the twist it had been given, but he was able to smooth it out fairly well and piece in from imagination the few words which had disappeared.

It was a news clipping of some length, which read:


"At 9.55 last night the jury in the Crittenden murder case filed into the jury box, the judge appeared in his robes, the court was brought to order, and the foreman read a verdict of 'Not Guilty.'

"The crowd, which had been waiting since eleven in the morning, seemed of a divided mind. There were some catcalls and whistles mixed with a burst of applause.

"The defendant, Jessica Vance, as calm as she had been through the entire trial, thanked each of the jurors in person, posed for camera shots, and then fainted. Her attorney, William Harrison, then..."


Here Kennedy stopped reading for a moment. He was drinking in his information too rapidly, it seemed. William Harrison, he remembered, had been a lawyer in the East before he took up mining promotion. And the initials of Jessica Vance were those of Julie Vernon. So Harrison had appeared here with this little document which was no more than a reminder of the past. And what could Julie Vernon do with Seven Mile House, if it were known that she once had been tried for murder? In American courts, it seems, innocence never is proved. The very atmosphere of crime seems to exude from our legal processes, and the stigma once attached to a name never can be washed clean again.

Was it blackmail that Harrison wanted? Had Julie Vernon and big Daniel Fargo between them disposed of this unwelcome guest? He could remember, from the tale of Maria, that Harrison had been a lot with Julie Vernon. Of course he had, for who could refuse anything to a man who knew so critically much about the past?

It might well be that Julie, however aware of danger from Harrison, had not lifted a hand to get rid of him. In that case, Fargo might have acted.

Kennedy returned to the clipping. It was one of those old New York stories, one of those fine flowerings which have their roots in Wall Street and bloom on Broadway. Mr. Crittenden, a broker who appeared richer than he was, had interested himself in his pretty young stenographer, who had stage ambitions.

A play had been chosen. Arrangements were being made to buy it. Casting problems had been put up to a producer. And then everything went sour. Suddenly the play no longer was headed for the boards. And a day or so later Mr. Crittenden was shot in his apartment. It was not a very mysterious killing, because Miss Vance had a key to the apartment. However, it was not definitely proved that she had lived with her employer. Neither was it proved that she owned a revolver or that she had fired the shots which killed Crittenden.

There was another possibility. It was known that a woman had entered the rooms of Crittenden that night; but there was a possibility that Crittenden's wife, from whom he had been separated for some time, might have used her old key to the place. It was this that saved Jessica Vance.

But though the jury acquitted her, it was not hard to understand why she had chosen to erase the old name and enter the world with a new one. It was not strange that she had desired to live as far from New York as Seven Mile House, either. And if a William Harrison who once had secured her acquittal appeared in her life again, surely she would be clay in his hands.

Kennedy touched the flame of his lighter to the clipping and watched it burn to a black ash that turned gray, dissolved, and floated into the air, lifted by the fire that consumed the last corner. Then he hastened to put out the lamp. Even after that, however, to his jumpy nerves it seemed that the wind was filled with angry voices that gathered in the distance and ran toward him.

He stretched himself on his bed, the blanket still huddled about him. He could not think very well. The best he could do was to watch the crawling of the moonlight which entered through a bit of glass that served as a skylight and could be lifted in hot weather to give the small room better ventilation. The rectangular patch of light had left the floor and was lifting along the frame of the door. It reached the brass knob, in due time, and the attention of Kennedy, as he lay there fixed on the glistening metal. That was how he happened to see it move.

We ourselves that we are dreaming, that it is illusion, when such things occur. So did Kennedy, sitting bolt upright, his heart in his throat. And the wind, shaking the little cabin from top to toe, screamed for him like a mad thing.

The knob turned back, hesitated, once more moved slowly to the left, paused, and again turned back to the normal position. If the master of the dog were standing there, why did not the brute scent him and go wild with joy? But then Kennedy remembered that the gale was blowing from the opposite direction.

He waited with hysteria growing up in him; then he bounded from the bed, turned the key, and jerked the door open.

The whole air of the cabin seemed to rush out past him in a single breath, but no-one stood at the door. The dog, struggling to get past him, he caught by the lead and permitted him to get a few steps into the open, but here a drift of clouds blackened the face of the moon and Kennedy could see no more. After all, there were plenty of trees behind which this nightwalker could have disappeared.

Courage faded out of Kennedy swiftly. He pulled the dog back inside the cabin and sat down again with his face in his hands. But that was blinding himself to danger that might break in at him. He sat erect. The skylight, through which the moon was shining again, was like a pointed gun.

Still that curious brain of his was examining the situation, twisting it, turning it, moralizing. The hand which had come there and turned the doorknob, prepared for murder, had hesitated to break down the door! Yet the noise hardly would have reached the Seven Mile House, in this outcry and yelling of the wind. One thrust of the shoulder would have beaten the door in, of course. But if it failed to do so, the man inside would be roused and alert for his defense. But what had he for defense except his bare hands?

His mind kept turning back to murder. It is the only common madness. One can understand war-killings when masses of men go over the top in a shouting passion. But murder that goes forehanded about its work is incomprehensible. Even now Kennedy refused to believe that an enemy had stood there outside his door, softly fumbling at the knob.

He swept his things into his knapsack, laid three one-dollar bills on the washstand and went out into the open night with the wind pushing him forward, lengthening his strides until it was like walking downstairs.

The sooner he was away among the windy hills with Seven Mile House out of sight behind him, the better. It was behind him now. Perhaps from one of its dark windows eyes watched with satisfaction his departure. Far off there among the sea of hills he would find some place a little sheltered from the dry storm and spend the rest of the night.

The dog, suddenly checking at some trail on the ground, jerked him suddenly round. The wind blew his eyes dry and hot in a moment. It was so strong that it seemed to give visible motion to the trembling stars. Seven Mile House, half obscured behind a hillside, was withdrawing from his life like an ugly dream, but into this nightmare the dog was straining every nerve to return.

And suddenly Kennedy knew that he must go back. He hardly could believe the strength of the impulse that overmastered him. Perhaps sailors felt like that when they stood to the guns with the ship sinking beneath them, but with some strange sense of duty keeping them at their posts. So it was with Kennedy.

He seemed to let the dog's will overcome his own; and back toward Seven Mile House he struggled through the wind with his head down. He knew with the first step he took that he would have to stick to this problem until he had dragged murder out into the light of day.

When he reached the cabin, he knew what he must do. The meat he had found on the floor, he wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. Then he set the door wide open. Once more he was in the night, with the wind putting the strength of its hand into the hollow of his back, blowing him forward.

Overhead, the sky was partly a rushing of clouds and in part an apparent swift streaming of the stars. The moon kept lifting itself from the cloud masses to overlook the world and then hooding itself once more till the mountains were lost in blackness. The world seemed to stand still, while the heavens spun about it.

Back of Seven Mile House he'd seen a coon with a face like a wise little black monkey. It lived in a weird enclosure not far from the house. Kennedy brought to the poor devil his gift of red meat, for he had to be sure. By some silly chance in a million, someone might have brought the food to the dog; by some odder chance, it might not be poisoned at all but merely have failed to please the palate of the dog. So Kennedy opened the latch of the door in the coon's yard and tossed the meat in. Then he sat down on a rock with his back to the wind and watched.

From his sleeping hutch in the trees, he saw the coon come down like a climbing ape. He watched it find the meat. Then in the little run of water which crossed the yard, the moonlight clearly showed the little animal washing the treasure. After that it ate, tearing the meat into long shreds and then feeding itself with its hands, sitting up almost like a human.

Kennedy watched with a sick expectation. Perhaps doctors felt like this when they tried their deadly contraptions on guinea pigs or white rats. They had to be sure as fate, even though they already were reasonably convinced, and a thousand little rodents must die to assure a single point in a cure.

The coon no longer ate. The meat lay forgotten on the ground. And now the coon was drinking thirstily, now twisting itself into a knot of pain. It drank again till another throe interrupted it.

Kennedy closed his eyes. His very bowels were gripped with sympathy. And the big dog beside him began to growl a little as though he knew the whiles of humanity and damned them with all his heart.

A strange little cry of sorrow came from the coon. In the dark of the moon it streaked up the tree to its sleeping place. A moment later it was down again, drinking hungrily at the run of water. And yet again Kennedy heard its faint outcry, like that of a human being stifling an agony.


CHAPTER VIII

HE took the dog back to the cabin. There, close to the door, it picked up at once a strong trail so fresh that Kennedy could hardly maintain his hold on the leash, the big shepherd straining forward with sinking hips and struggling shoulders. The trail wound back into the trees, as Kennedy expected. There was no possibility of going secretly, for the dog, throttled by its own pull on the collar, gasped like an engine. Trees loomed at Kennedy; from every one he half expected a dim figure to step out with a leveled gun. But now the trail ran straight to the front of the tavern. He checked the dog there, dropping on one knee and holding it by the shoulders until it had regained its breath. Still it was impatient to be gone. No matter what they had passed through together, the strange beast merely tolerated him as a necessary evil. His heart was set on a single object.

After a moment, he started on again with the dog, up the steps of the verandah, staring into the gloom where he last had seen Fargo standing. But there was nothing on the long porch except the force and the voice of the wind. The front door was not locked. He opened it, and the dog jerked him suddenly inside, down the hall, and halfway up the stairs.

Here, because it began to choke and cough against the restraint once more, he caught it again by the shoulders. The shepherd, half crazed with anxiety to be gone on the fresh trail that ran over the carpet, snarled in Kennedy's face with bared teeth. Kennedy held on, waiting for that hoarse breathing to grow quieter. And in him there was a horrible surety that figures stood in the doorways, whispering, watching him. He looked up at something that moved. It was the old-fashioned hanging lamp in the hall, turned down so that its light merely served, like Milton's hell-fire, to make darkness visible. There was a sound of wind all through the house but no drafts of any strength, and yet the lamp was swinging slowly from side to side like a pendulum running down. He had a strangely anxious desire to steady it to stillness. It seemed to him to be marking out the long seconds of a different sort of time, the time which dealt with murder and the fate of the murderer, measuring out a course of events in which Kennedy himself was involved.

Here the dog, too long delayed, made a great effort. Struggling blindly, he swung his head. It knocked like a wooden maul against the jaw of Kennedy and out of his nerveless hands the big brute raced up the stairs. He got to his feet to follow but he was badly dazed. Once more, it seemed, the shepherd would bring him to the quarry too late or else overrun the mark. Desperately Kennedy staggered up the stairs to the hall. The dog had turned to the right but now the scratch of its nails and the thudding of its feet was lost in silence. Through the long tunnel of gloom Kennedy ran on. At the very end of the corridor was a streak of pale light beneath a door. He found the knob, pushed the door open, and stepped out onto a loggia all open to the west. It was the slant moonshine that had stolen under the door, and in the middle of the floor lay the dog with something white between his paws. When Kennedy came near, the shepherd half lifted himself, ready to attack. There was no doubt about his readiness to die defending the little wisp of cloth which he now guarded. It was a good linen handkerchief, to judge by the translucence of the cloth in the moonlight, but Kennedy could not tell whether it was a little wisp of a woman's handkerchief or a man's larger one.

Here on this loggia, protected from the sweep of the night wind, his murderer had been sitting mere seconds before. How could he now be followed in the changing light of the moon and through the shadows of the trees, even if Kennedy had the courage to leap over the loggia's rail and try to run him down? It was an easy jump, for the slope of the hillside shortened the distance.

For an instant Kennedy paused, and as he breathed of the cold mountain air he could not help remembering the slow, pendulous swing of the lamp in the hall. Time was running out, time was running down for him, he felt.

There was one thing he could attempt without the dog's help. He hurried back into the hall. Here on either side were the rooms in which the guests were lodged—if only he could know which of them housed his suspects! A wiser man, a man of any forethought at all, engaged on this dangerous business, would have found out all of these details long before.

Nevertheless, he now was able to see in the dim hallway the gleam of the doorknob. He knocked on the first door to his right. The sleepy voice of an old woman answered: "Who's there?"

"Mistake. Wrong room," called Kennedy.

He tried the left hand door. A man called out in reply. That would be the doctor. So he went on, anxiously, praying for a door from which there might be no response. Time was very short indeed. At this very moment, no doubt, his fugitive had scampered up the hillside and was returning to one of these rooms. He tried again a door to the right. It pulled suddenly open and before him stood the imposing bulk of the singer, MacDonald. He wore a long dressing-gown of a thin, figured silk, rich enough to suit a mandarin.


Illustration

Before him stood the imposing bulk of the singer, MacDonald.

"What's up?" asked MacDonald in his warm, genial voice. "I thought I heard somebody knocking, up and down the hall."

"That scoundrel of a dog of mine," answered Kennedy. "He broke away and bolted into the tavern. Can't find him, and I thought he might have gotten into one of these rooms."

"How'd he get through the front door?" asked MacDonald.

"I don't know. It must have been ajar," said Kennedy. "Sorry to bother you."

"Not at all. Mysterious sort of a devil, isn't he?"

"I never saw another like him," admitted Kennedy.

It was too late, now, to go on with his exploration of the rooms. This interruption had given plenty of time for his fugitive to regain the inside of the tavern.

"I'd ask you in," said MacDonald, yawning hugely, "but I'm for bed. Good-night, and good luck with the dog. Don't let him take an arm off you, one of these days!"

He laughed a little and closed his door, and the last thing that Kennedy saw on him was his shoes beneath the edge of the dressing gown. For MacDonald was not wearing slippers, as one might have expected, but heavy brogans, and they were quite heavily coated with dust. Almost like the very salvation of his soul, Kennedy wished that he could remember in what condition the shoes of MacDonald had been that evening. Was it MacDonald who, a moment before, had been out there on the loggia?

He returned to the loggia. It was in his thoughts that the dog would have vanished. But there he still lay, so happy in guarding this token of his owner that his tail continually swept the loggia floor. To try mere force on him would be like attacking a machine-gun nest. Kennedy remembered the word which Camilla Cuyas had used with such effect.

"Venga!" commanded Kennedy.

The big head of the dog canted to one side. His ears pricked. The dark markings around and between the eyes which gave the leonine aspect to him, and the look of frowning wisdom, altered suddenly. He seemed trying to make sense of something that was almost but not quite known to him. Perhaps the word of command was not quite right? Kennedy determined to try a cognate tongue.

"Viene qui!" he ordered peremptorily.

The dog rose instantly to his feet. The handkerchief at his feet he started to pick up between his teeth.

"Qui!" called Kennedy.

And the big fellow, letting the handkerchief lie there, advanced readily toward him, even wagging his tail as if in expectation of a pleasant greeting. The triumph that warmed the heart of Kennedy had only a moment to live. Out of the moonlight and the shadows of the hillside trees a whistle sounded, not overloud. At the sound of it the dog whirled and bolted for the railing. He scooped up the handkerchief on his way and vaulted over the railing with the white cloth fluttering between his teeth.

This was the time, Kennedy knew, to make one of two choices. Either now he ran back to the rooms and once more searched to find who was absent from them, or else he attempted instantly to follow the trail through the night. In the distance he heard the dog's whine of joy as it joined its owner, then silence.

The brain of Kennedy forgot to function with its usual logic. Already the owner had tried with a bullet and with poison to end the life of the dog. Now was his chance to try the gun again, or some other means equally effective. He could not let the dog down, he knew.

Kennedy put his hand on the railing and vaulted down to the slope, slipped on the rolling gravel to hand and knees and came up with raw palms and battered kneecaps, There is nothing more painful than a good knock on the knees. Kennedy was groaning as he stumbled forward. And here the moon, which had been shining brightly as early morning, rolled into a dense cloud and left Kennedy to darkness and his own clumsy instinct for direction. The result was that he had run full on into a tree and knocked out his breath.

Bent over with his hands on his knees, he listened again for the voice of the dog somewhere in the distance to guide him. Then he went on, running, stumbling, his hands held out to ward off the sudden dangers that jumped toward his face. A quick brightening of the moon promised to give him again a surer way through the woods, but it failed to come completely out of the clouds. As through a mist, he was searching through a half light, when he saw something in vague, struggling motion off to his right. A moment later he was reaching out his hands toward the dog.

It lay prone, raking leaves and soil away in its blind struggling. It snapped at the hands of Kennedy furiously. He had to draw back a little. Perhaps, in fact, there was nothing he could do, for if ever he had seen a death-struggle this was one. Only one thing was missing. He could not tell what it was, but leaning one hand against the trunk of a tree he set his clam brain searching for that one element which was lacking. A dying man or a dying beast was apt to struggle in convulsions as this poor beast now was doing. But there should have been something more.

He remembered, now. There should have been that most horrible of all sounds, the rack and gasping of lungs after breath that cannot be taken; and of this there was not a token in the dog.

It lay more quietly now, its tongue lolling, its head down, its legs kicking out only once and again. Kennedy, leaning by it, found what he expected. The thick ruff of fur around the throat at one point was bound down. Through the hair he found a wire so thin that it cut the fingers with which he strove to break it.

He pulled out his pocket knife. There was no longer a struggle. The poor beast, seeming larger than ever as it stretched flat on the ground, lay inert. A short fingernail failed to open the knife. He tried with his teeth. They slipped from the hard steel. Then a thumb nail pried the blade open. He reached desperately with it. It hardly mattered whether he cut through both flesh and wire. But now the blade was beneath the metal. A hard tug cut or snapped that thin garrot.

Still there was no life, no sign of returning breath. He turned the dog on its stomach and, kneeling above it, began the motions of resurrection which are used on those who come out of the sea half-drowned. Rhythmically he pressed down, relaxed his weight, pressed down again, swinging backwards and forwards as he had seen a lifeguard do, 13 to the minute. But, since a dog's breathing is quicker than that of a human being, so the rhythm should be more hurried now, he thought. He increased the speed of his pendulous swaying—and once more he remembered the lamp in the hall as it swung slowly back and forth.

Then life returned. It was not a slow process. It came in a sudden bunching of the lifeless muscles; and an instant later the dog was on his feet. He was still in no condition to resume the trail of his owner. He stood with widely braced feet and hanging head, the long tongue drooling down from his mouth; but to the hand of Kennedy as it stroked him he paid no attention whatever.

When at last he stood straight, the breathing sounds no more a rattling wheeze, he still found in Kennedy a stranger and still he was urging forward to take the trail of his master who had just left him to die.


CHAPTER IX

THE trail which the dog followed was not over the hill, actually. It curved back, instead, towards the tavern. And straight towards the inn it continued.

Kennedy gave up his search and pulled back the gasping dog on a shorter leash. He had failed to run down the owner, but perhaps that was only a small loss. Back there in Seven Mile House Kennedy already could be quite sure that the owner lived, man or woman. Every stroke of fortune had been against him, this evening, but when the morning came he would bring the dog face to face with his quarry at last. In the tavern lights had come on, here and there. A shutter was slamming. But presently the face of the building was dark again; the shutter was still; and the valley lay in perfect silence. By moonlight, Kennedy looked at his watch and shrugged his shoulders. It was only 11 o'clock, and yet it seemed that a fortnight had been crowded into his life since nightfall.

He went back to his cabin perforce. It seemed to him like a trap on which his enemy could descend at will, but it was also necessary for him to get a change of underwear out of his knapsack and dry his wet skin. So he returned.

There was no need of lighting the lamp. His fingers could find their way well enough among the familiar contents of the knapsack. And the moon shone brilliantly down through the skylight as he stripped off his clothes and rubbed his scrawny body to a glow with a towel. He remembered the years of adolescence when he had watched the big bones forming and had waited with a breathless, year-long expectancy for the coming of the great muscles which should go with such a frame. He had laboured at exercising machines. He had walked and run and climbed. He had done a bit of weight-lifting, in a small way, so that however a kind God chose to give him flesh it should appear at once as useful, lasting strength. But God had turned a cruel face upon him. The great symmetrical muscles never had come flowing over his body. And now his elbows and his knees stood out as unfleshed as ever. He thought of himself as of a meatless bird, a poor, scrawny thing hardly worthy of the market. And this set him smiling a little.

He hastened into dry underclothes and then wrapped a blanket around him. There was no use lying down on the bed when he knew that he could not come even close to sleep. Again this picture of himself huddled into a blanket, shivering in the moonlit cabin, started his smiling once more, for he was one of your rare people who can watch themselves from a distance that gives perspective. He was always finding himself involved in affairs that had won only a part of his conscious volition. Here, to make the picture perfect the dog should have become as close to him, as faithful and loyal to him as the lion was after the thorn was pulled from his foot by that Greek, whatever his name was. But instead of lying at his feet in adoration, the confounded dog regarded him no more than an oyster and lay in front of the door with his nose at the threshold, breathing that outer world in which the presence of the master walked up and down.

Into these wanderings of Kennedy's mind came a distant knocking, a pause, and then a repeat of the sound. He looked out the window and saw with surprise that a woman with a sort of knapsack on her back was standing before the front door of Seven Mile House. Presently the door opened. The hall light was very faint, but Kennedy could recognise Julie Vernon by a certain pride in the carriage of her head, a certain dignity of presence which even a dressing gown could not entirely disguise.

But what sort of travellers arrive on foot at this hour? What sort of women walk over the midnight hills to a Seven Mile House?

Kennedy had dressed and was in the outer night with his dog before he realised that he hardly would be able to find out much about his new guest. For his dog, if not he, was forbidden the house. However, since he had started he went on. The noise and the confusion of the storm had kept fear scampering up to his very heels; but now the uproar seemed like a departed friend compared with the brittle, crystal silence which had possessed the night. The grinding of the sand under his feet seemed to waken echoes and the moon retouched the entire world with silver. A man with a gun might operate now with perfect comfort from the most anonymous distance. Common sense told Kennedy to keep as far as possible from Seven Mile House. Its windows watched him with so many black, glittering eyes, but that perversity which so often ruled his feet now kept them striding towards the place like a fly towards a crouching spider, or a lizard, let us say, towards the house of the horrible shadow that lives in the ground.

When he rounded the corner of the building he was comforted by the soft sound of a woman's voice talking, far away, and a yellow light from the windows of the lounge entered the white moonshine and lay on the hillside like gold upon snow. Kennedy came to the first window and looked in.

Julie Vernon had gathered and freshened the fire on the hearth; now she sat beside it in a rose-coloured dressing gown as pleasant to the eye of Kennedy as a flower, a first flower when all the rest of the garden is still dark or green. However, she was not alone. Sunning herself and her hands in front of the flame was the newcomer. She was in riding clothes fitted by a tailor's art which he shows when he has something to reveal and full permission to do so. She had taken off her hat, so that the close, boyish bob of her hair—which she could set in order with a slight shake of her head—set off her good looks. She was not a beauty and she was of an age when girls used to be called women, yet there was something about her that warmed the blood of Kennedy. He knew that he was not spying, for even if he had been in the room something about her air and manner subtly invited the full attention of a man. As she talked she had a way of throwing back her head and her shoulders and half closing her eyes, as though she were casting herself heartily into whatever she talked about, and in this posture some of her best points became decidedly more apparent. The grooming of this lady came to a fine point in the manicuring of her nails which she wore very long, glistening and blood-red. She was the type which men call "approachable." Women who lead more careful lives describe the same type with a shorter and much more rhythmic word, and Julie Vernon now regarded her guest with an odd mixture of amusement and contempt.

Here the dog reared himself unexpectedly and planted his forepaws on the sill of the window. It was history repeating itself, for at this same window, earlier in the evening, he had looked into the lounge. Then he had found something to recognise. So did he now with a growl that set his big body shuddering, and before Kennedy could jerk him out of sight, the lady in the riding clothes turned her head and saw that nightmare in the window. She made a screaming face, though no sound came out to Kennedy, and fell in a faint. Julie Vernon had barely time to stretch out her arms and so in part break the drop.

Kennedy threw two quick half hitches of the chain around a sapling's trunk and raced at full speed to be of help. The chain jangled violently as the dog tried to follow him and that savage growl kept a tingle up his backbone as he ran into the house. He paused to get a glass of water and wet a towel in the pantry. When he reached the lounge Julie Vernon already had the woman's stock off her throat and a cushion under her heels to make her feet higher than her head. Kennedy dripped water on her face and throat and wrists. He used the wet towel to make a snapping fan as a prize-fighter's second will do when he sits in the corner between rounds. The lady made not the slightest response.

"See how she is," whispered Julie Vernon. "I can find a trace of a pulse."

He took the pulse in turn, but he was so jumpy and his hands were so cold that he could feel nothing. He put his ear over her heart. Presently he heard the beating. There was a scatter and racing to it, a disappearing scatter like footfalls hurrying out of earshot.

Kennedy looked up at Julie and said: "It's beating. She's had a rotten shock. But she's going to come through."


Illustration

Kennedy looked up at Julie and said: "She's had
a rotten shock. But she's going to come through."

Julie dropped her head back for a moment, relaxing from sick apprehension. The relief was so great that she became almost gay.

"You've no idea how pretty your dog looks when he pops up at a window towards midnight," said Julie Vernon. "You must have played peek-a-boo a lot when you were a little boy. Mr. Kennedy, I recognised the beast, but I almost screamed when I saw him standing there seven feet high."

Her calm eyes were reading the mind of Kennedy across like English print, and up and down like Chinese.

"What's your reputation in the world, please," she said.

"I haven't any," he told her, seriously.

"Oh, but you have—for something. A man needs a reputation, almost as much as a woman needs clothes," she said. "Will you stop the growling of that horrible brute?"

The noise seemed to come up from under the ground.

"I'll do what I can," said Kennedy.

He went to the window, opened it, and looked out. The dog remained by the sapling, but his hair was on end with anger. His growling stopped when he saw Kennedy and his head cocked expectantly to one side. It was the first recognition he had given to this substitute master.

"Be good," said Kennedy, and retreated.

The growling did not recommence. Julie Vernon was fanning the woman now. Kennedy sat down and lighted a cigarette.

"She looks a little better don't you think?" asked Kennedy.

"I do not," said Julie Vernon. "Her name's Morrel, by the way. Mrs. Morrel. And her first name is Francesca. That's Italian, but she doesn't have a Latin look at all."

In fact, Mrs. Morrel remained an ugly grey; her eyes seemed a bit sunken. There was something very odd and long about her face, perhaps caused by the colourlessness of her lips.

"Strange," said Kennedy. "No lipstick."

"Just an old-fashioned girl," suggested Julie Vernon, looking up with a slightly wry face.

"Ah, you're ironical," said Kennedy.

She shook her head and shrugged. "Do you realise that if this woman dies there will be the very devil to pay?" said Julie. "Do you realise that even if she doesn't die, she's apt to sue me?"

"In that case we will ask her how she came to know the dog so well," suggested Kennedy.

"Know the dog? What do you mean?"

"That was why she fainted," said Kennedy. "You were not facing her, but I was able to see first the shock when she had a glimpse of the brute in the window and then the opening of her eyes when she recognised him. It was at this point that she fainted."

"Mr. Kennedy, do you observe everything as closely as this?"

"I fear that I am very slow-minded," he answered. "I am not very adroit and therefore I must be careful."

"Ah?" she said.

"So that in general conversation I'm usually quite silent, you know."

"I haven't noticed that," said Julie.

"Perhaps that is because..." He checked himself. "I was about to pay you a compliment to which Mr. Fargo might have objected," he concluded.

He put his ear again to the breast of Mrs. Morrel.

"She is definitely better. Presently she will be among us again," he said.

"I thought her colour was improving. By the way, have you an impression that Danny Fargo owns me?"

"Dear Miss Vernon, I only desire to think exactly what you wish."

"What do you spend your time on?" she asked.

"On too many things—books, or beasts or insects."

"That does make for rather impersonal conversation."

"I amuse you," sighed Kennedy. "I merely divert you."

"Not at all. Not as you mean it, at least."

"Yes," he said, gravely, "behind your eyes I can see the act of memory. You are storing my remarks for repetition."

"But I couldn't," she said. "I never could quote from books."

"Ah, yes," he said, nodding as he traced the point of this remark. "A rather heavy phraseology. That is one of my conversational faults."

"Aren't you making yourself miserable for nothing?" she asked.

"It is very pleasant when you smile," said Kennedy, "whether you smile with me or at me."

"That's very neat," she said.

"I wish it were my own," said Kennedy. "I'm afraid that I read it somewhere."

"Bless you," said Julie. "You're rather a lamb!"

"Suddenly," said Kennedy, "you pity me. What have I said?"

"You've simply made it clear that I'm quite an idiot and you are quite a dear." She laughed a little.

His heart was full, but he could only say: "I am glad that I have come to Seven Mile House."

There was still another thing that he wished even more. It was that he could erase that ugly suspicion of killing in New York from her past; he wished that there had not even been an acquittal in her record, but that the courts never had seen her face. Above all, he wished that there did not remain in his mind, like a snake in a dark corner, a suspicion that she had had something to do with the death of William Harrison.

"Don't you think," she said, "that we should do something about Mrs. Morrel before she wakes up? Something to show that we've been working hard over her? That might keep her from making trouble. But most of all how I wish that the sheriff would get here!"

"He should be by this time." agreed Kennedy.

"He's away on some man-trail, I suppose. The hills are full of people the law wants for one reason or another and the sheriff goes off prospecting for them. He never finds any but he has the patience of a man hunting for gold. He may not arrive here till late tomorrow, for that matter. But what can we do for our sweet Francesca."

She made a face of distaste.

"I believe that I understand," said Kennedy, "and since she is about to awaken, would it be wise for me to bring some brandy?"

"Not a bad thought," she said.

He got up and strode away. He was almost at the end of the next room when Julie Vernon overtook him.

"Do you know where the brandy is?" she asked.

"Ah, as a matter of fact I do not," he said.

She touched his arm and laughed up at him, as though she invited him to share the amusement she derived from him so continually. Then, shaking her head once more, she hurried past him.

"Just keep an eye on the Morrel, will you?" she asked.

He followed her with his glance for a moment. There was about his breast a tightness which he could not remember having felt before. He drew a very long, deep breath. The tightness merely increased.

"Let it not be she," said Kennedy, to whatever deity godless men invoke in their prayers. "Let it not be she a second time!"

Here he heard the dog growling once more. The open window allowed the sound to come rumbling through Seven Mile House. That ceased, in a hush like a drawn breath. Then a long, long howl as of a wolf burst through the tavern. It went up the scale towards an incredible vanishing point; it chopped off short before that point arrived. Kennedy had to let some of the tingle of it get out of the top of his head before he could move. Then he ran back to the lounge.

Mrs. Morrel, surprisingly recovered from her collapse, was at the window leaning out. He heard her say softly, like one who repeats: "Fa quieta, Naldo," and the growling of the dog ceased. Kennedy had paused to observe these surprising things. Mrs. Morrel was walking towards the fireplace when he came into the room and she glanced towards him with a keen, probing suspicion.

"Ah, Mrs. Morrel," he said. "I'm so glad that you're better. Miss Vernon has been very alarmed. Won't you sit down? Won't you relax a little? Miss Vernon is bringing some brandy."

She answered, staring at him: "You were at that window with him. Who owns that terrible beast? Do you?"

"Not I," said Kennedy. "I simply picked him up on the range."

"Picked him up?" she echoed. "Do you mean that the owner hasn't appeared to claim him?"

"No, the owner has not appeared," said Kennedy truthfully.

"How strange," said Mrs. Morrel. She sat down suddenly and drew an audible breath. Half her colour returned at a stroke. "I thought it was a wolf for an instant," she said. "I'm such a fool. I'm really sorry I've made all this scene. It was just that..."

Her voice died out and she finished her sentence with a smile. Nevertheless, Kennedy wished with all his heart that she had told him what went on in her mind during that instant when she first saw Naldo. It was strange how the mystery of the dog was diminished merely by finding his name.

Here Julie came in with the brandy. She was hurrying.

"What a horrible howl that dog gave as though he'd seen the devil," she exclaimed. "It'll have everyone in the house up with a nightmare."

"I managed lo get up and got to the window for air," said Mrs. Morrel. "And when the beast saw me he started to howl."

There were stirrings and muffled footfalls from the rooms above where some of the guests certainly had been roused.

"Try this," said Julie, offering the brandy.

Mrs. Morrel protested. Also, she took the brandy, sipped it, and acknowledged its goodness with a little flash of the eye.

"Everything seemed to go crash in me," said Mrs. Morrel beginning to glow. "It was like something out of a fairy tale, one of the horrible ones, that terrible beast at the window. I felt like little Red Riding Hood, or something."

Julie Vernon looked down suddenly to the floor and Kennedy saw that she was struggling mutely with a smile. He had not the least idea why. It was only plain to him that Mrs. Morrel was a woman of great recuperative powers. He would have said of her that she was not frightfully sensitive and that her skin was fairly thick. But the particular amusement of Julie Vernon he did not understand.

"You have a charming place here," Mrs. Morrel was saying. "I've heard a lot about it from a great friend of mine. You must know him quite well. He's William Harrison."

"Oh, yes," said Julie. She smiled at Mrs. Morrel.

"Unfortunately," said Kennedy solemnly.

But before he could carry on to the sad tidings, Julie broke in with: "He's been here several times."

"Sort of wonderful, isn't he—I mean, his line, and all?" said Mrs. Morrel.

She laughed and made a pleat in the slack of her riding trousers.

"Yes," agreed Julie. "And after your upset, hadn't we better be getting you to bed?"

"But you know," said Mrs. Morrel, "I really expected that Bill Harrison would be here before me, and that he'd have arranged a way for me to get here. Instead of that, I had to hire a horse at the stable and of course I got a wretched thing that went lame on me. I think I walked ten miles through those horrible hills! Haven't you had word from him, Miss Vernon? He's so fond of you. He's really fond of you, you know."

"Mr. Harrison has been here." Julie said, "but..."

"Oh, I'm so glad!" said Mrs. Morrel. "And did he tell you that I was coming?"

"Yes. He told me," said Julie, looking steadily at her.

Kennedy had been on the verge of revealing that Harrison was dead. It seemed to him now, however, that nothing could be more terribly out of place than to let this woman know the truth when it was apparent that Harrison meant as much to her as any man could. Already she had had a shock. And yet it dawned on Kennedy that Julie was about to break the sad news to Mrs. Morrel. He felt it coming. He saw the words forming on her lips.

"But I have bad news for you, Mrs. Morrel," said Julie. "Mr. Harrison has had a very serious accident."

Mrs. Morrel stared at her. She began to rise from her chair as though an invisible hand were lifting her.

"Bill is dead!" she broke out.

"I'm sorry. There was an unfortunate landslide..." began Julie.

Mrs. Morrel stood before Julie with her head reared back. She was pale, but she looked as far from fainting as any woman could.

"Accident! Unfortunate!" she cried. "It wasn't an accident. It was murder!"


CHAPTER X

SOME words and phrases clear a listening space and an elbow room for themselves, thought Kennedy, and "murder" decidedly is the best of them all. Along the upper hall and down the stairs footfalls were coming. The whole of Seven Mile House seemed gathering to listen to the outburst from Mrs. Morrel. But the moment she had spoken there was a change in her. The passion was spent by that single word, it seemed, as a charge of static electricity is spent by the spark.

"Murder? Are you saying 'murder'?" said Julie Vernon, with a look of apprehension. "What makes you say that?"

"He was too young to die by accident," said Mrs. Morrel. "It simply burst out of me. And I suppose it is time for me to get to bed."

Obviously she was trying to pass off the bad moment, and here Camille Cuyas came into the lounge.

"What on earth was that terrible howl?" she asked. Even to bed she wore jewels. There was a bracelet—rings—and an emerald pendant.

Julie began to explain as MacDonald came into the room, looking enormous in a bathrobe, still pink and smiling with good nature. He had been roused from a good sleep by the same outcry, he said, and it fairly melted the marrow of his bones, he declared. Julie was soothing everyone like the perfect hostess, and introducing her guests to Mrs. Morrel. MacDonald was surprisingly courtly and dignified. He bowed to Mrs. Morrel with much formality and Kennedy took note. There is much to be learnt about people by their manner of greeting others. The air of MacDonald seemed oddly out of place with the rest of his character. One part of him was calling the other liar.

A third person stood on the threshold of the lounge, almost lost in the shadows beyond the reach of the firelight. That was big Daniel Fargo. Kennedy could feel almost better than he could see that grim presence. Fargo was fully dressed, as wide awake as though he had not slept at all. The other people in the room he overlooked as a dog might overlook sheep; his eye was for Julie alone and when she made a sign to him be disappeared like a ghost. It was only then that Kennedy realised that of all the people lodging in Seven Mile House only those he suspected of murder had been roused enough by the howl of the dog to come downstairs and make inquiries.

All the rest had chosen to remain in their rooms. And it came to Kennedy, with one of those mindless forward leapings of thought which we call inspiration when they turn out to be true, that perhaps Julie Vernon and Daniel Fargo and Camilla Cuyas and MacDonald were in some manner all linked together—not individuals at all, but a subtly connected quartet.

The idea stimulated him beyond measure. He had enough to make him thoughtful about three of them, if the dusty shoes of MacDonald had meant all that they might. Only Camilla Cuyas was not marked down by any very particular suspicion. That was why he gave her his attention now and instantly she rewarded him for it. She was standing back by the fire, where her own face would be in shadow while she watched the others and Kennedy saw at once that her attention was riveted upon two people—MacDonald and Mrs. Morrel. To MacDonald she gave a piercing side-glance now and then, but on Mrs. Morrel she dwelt as closely as though she were trying to remember another name for an unforgotten face. It was the peculiar talent or defect of the Spanish girl that she could put so much of herself into a single glance. What she was pouring out upon Mrs. Morrel was covert, it came only in flashes, but Kennedy thought that he never had guessed at such black suspicion and such growing hatred as he now was reading in Camilla.

He had much to interpret from this silent by-play. If Camilla was devoting such a poisonous hatred to a stranger like Mrs. Morrel, it seemed certain that she was doing so because of something connected with MacDonald. Had she, then, detected some flash between MacDonald and the stranger? It was all a very tenuous business, but it was as real to Kennedy as though he had read it in print and heard it attested under oath. There was something between MacDonald and Mrs. Morrell and because of it Camilla was hating the newcomer with a passionate devotion. All was gossamer as thin as spiderweb, it was mere moonshine and mind-stuff, and yet with it Kennedy kept on weaving his web in which he hoped, sooner or later, to catch a human being.

MacDonald went back to bed and Camilla found it exactly the thing she wanted to do, so she went along; and as they disappeared into the gloom of the next room, already Kennedy saw her looking up at the big man, asking her question.

"I wish I didn't have to spend the night alone," Mrs. Morrel was saying. And she added, with a rather odd smile: "What nice people you have at Seven Mile House, Miss Vernon."

"I'm very lucky," said Julie, looking extremely weary. "But if you're afraid of the night—after that shock you've had—I can put you in a room with a small anteroom adjoining where Mr. Kennedy might be kind enough to sleep on a couch. Then he'd hear the least sound you made in the night."

The bold eyes of Mrs. Morrel drifted over Kennedy.

"I could furnish Mr. Kennedy with a gun," said Julie.

"Would you mind," asked Mrs. Morrel, deciding to smile. This of course left nothing for Kennedy to do except to acquiesce. "Besides," said Mrs. Morrel, "there's your dog. I think he'd hear the stir of a feather in the night."

It was agreed. Julie Vernon strangely made no protest now at having the big dog in the tavern.

To get Naldo up the stairs without letting him pull free was as big a problem as ever. He left claw marks on every step of the carpeted stairs and in the hall above he seemed bewildered by the many traces of that scent which meant so much to him. But it was no time to let him again follow down one of those trails. Kennedy had to take the gun which Julie offered. He noticed that it was not the compact automatic which he had seen in her hand earlier that evening. Instead, it was a big comfortably balanced old single-action Colt. He let the heel of it rock in his hand, familiarly.

"Do you know those guns?" asked Julie.

"Quite well," he said. "They have a romantic meaning, in this part of the country, don't you think?"

"Romantic," asked Mrs. Morrel sharply. "The important thing is do you know how to handle it?"

"I won't guarantee to hit things—not in the dark," said Kennedy. "But at least the gun will make a noise for me."

For a gloomy half second the eyes of Mrs. Morrel doubted him; then she accepted him as the best protection she could get. Julie carried blankets into the bedroom where Kennedy was to sleep, and he tied Naldo to the leg of the couch while he helped to secure the room of Mrs. Morrel for the night. She was as particular as a badly frightened person could be. The windows and shutters were latched top and bottom and locked. She looked to the lock of the door, too.

"I'm glad it's a Yale lock," she said, trying the key in it.

"I had all the old locks changed," said Julie.

"But locks and bolts and bars and all that," said Mrs. Morrel, "aren't much good if a scientific mind gets after them. Now are they?"

"Scientific?" echoed Julie. "Scientific burglars, do you mean? Lock-picking, and that sort of thing?"

Mrs. Morrel glanced at her hostess impatiently, only half hearing what had been said, her mind was so full of her own thoughts.

To Kennedy it was plain that science to her, was something like witchcraft in the old days. It let danger walk invisible and dissolved both locks and walls as with a word, an Open Sesame.

When everything had been made secure, Kennedy went into his own room. Mrs. Morrel said good-night to him.

"If you hear anything, come straight into my room," she said. "How well can you hear from your room. Will you try it?"

He went into his room to test the sounds.

"Rap as soon as you hear," she said.

After a moment during which he listened intently, he heard her saying: "Now?"

He tapped, then opened the door.

"Your ears aren't the sharpest in the world," said Mrs. Morrel. "But I suppose it's going to be all right."

"If anyone tries to break into your room, madam," said Kennedy, "there's sure to be a noise. Enough noise to wake me up. I'm a light sleeper. Besides, I'll hear you, when you cry out, of course."

She grew tense at once.

"Don't wait for that. If you hear anything... I mean, if you only hear a sound of me moving on the bed, come straight in with that flashlight and that gun. Will you do that?"

"Certainly," said Kennedy.

Julie Vernon, near the hall door, had been listening.

"Good-night," she said. "You're not going to mind, Mr. Kennedy?"

He stepped out into the hall with her.

"Not a bit. I like to be useful. Good-night, Miss Vance."

She already was turning and he had an impression that her face had withered to middle age at a stroke. He could not tell why, and when he glanced after her she was going down the hall slowly, very slowly. It was only then that realisation came over him, and the full significance of the name he had used to her. It seemed to recreate the murder of which she had been accused. He had a sense of frightfulness too great to be endured; his mind refused to harbour it. He went back to his own couch and wrapped himself in the blankets. For the room was a little icebox. There was no means of heating it. Through its small window when the westering moon shone, the light was shifting up the farther wall so that he was reminded very uncomfortably of his session in the cabin when someone had tried to get in at him. Weariness was dammed up in his brain, a weight against his eyes, but still he could not sleep for a time. He had loosed the dog. There in the half light of the moon he tried the name "Naldo" and saw the big head of the dog twist suddenly around toward him in recognition. After that, Naldo curled up in a ball and prepared to forget the world.

Kennedy tried to do the same thing, but something remained unpleasantly in his memory of the way Julie Vernon had stood by the door of Mrs. Morrel's room and watched the final arrangements, silently. That silence bothered him, but what troubled him most of all was that she had chosen to give him the post of watcher over Mrs. Morrel. When there was real danger, why did not her mind turn to that formidable fellow, Daniel Fargo? Jovial MacDonald had twice the thews and sinews of a Kennedy. And if there were evil in her mind she had a savage reason for expressing it since he had called her by her real name.

How close, then, was the danger, he asked himself. What part, for instance, lay only in Mrs. Morrel's imagination? The answer was that Mrs. Morrel was not a creature of nerves. She had fainted when she saw the dog because Naldo meant mysteriously much to her; but she had endured the news of the death of Harrison like a true fighter. That was the key to her now. She was badly frightened, but also she wanted to strike back at the danger which she feared. Darkness began to pour over the tired brain of Kennedy. He took a final look at his watch, and found that it was half past 12. Yet already it seemed the longest night he ever had passed through.

As sleep began to take hold on him, he still fought it off for a moment to arrange in his mind the suspicions which had fallen on his four suspects. But rather than sum up the details of all that could be mustered against them, he found himself gloomily determining that every one of the four had a character which admitted the possibility of violence, even of violent crime. All, that is, except MacDonald. He determined on the next day to look more carefully into MacDonald. It might be that a chat with the big cheerful man would reward him. After that, Kennedy slept.

He wakened exactly at three minutes before two o'clock. He noted the time because the moonlight fell full on the face of his wrist-watch. His heart was beating fast, fast enough to disturb and shorten his breathing so that it seemed during the first excited seconds as though the room were filled not with air but with choking dust.

Something had stirred and changed in the room. Now he made it out. It was Naldo, looking as big as a lion with his hair ruffled out and standing on end, as he moved across the floor. He went like a stalking wild beast, crouched, lifting his feet and putting them down so cautiously that there was not a whisper of sound even from the big nails on the bare floor. It seemed to Kennedy for a shocking instant that the dangerous glitter of Naldo's eyes was fixed upon him, but he saw at once that the dog was aiming at something beyond him. It was as though Naldo were stalking a ghostly image from his own brain; he was pointing his nose towards the blank wall and the closed door. When he reached the door, he sniffed beneath it, then, with his hair bristling more than, ever, he ran his paw along the crack at the bottom of it.


CHAPTER XI

ALL of this Kennedy had seen by moonlight. He got his flashlight and gun now. Then he stood beside the door and listened to the thundering of his heart and watched the strange eagerness of the dog. It might be that he was making a great fool of himself, but the instant came when he could not wait another second. He did not even rap at the door, there was such a sense of tragedy and horror building up in his mind. Logic told him that this was all imagination building on the strange ghost-hunting of the dog, but logic meant nothing to him now.

He turned the knob. The door swung open in perfect silence. There was only the faintest of hushing noises, perhaps caused by the current of air which had entered as the door swung wide. A childish fancy came to Kennedy that forms were rushing on him through the blackness. He lifted his flashlight.

It fell straight on the bed. The two pillows showed the deep imprint of the head of Mrs. Morrel, but she was not there. The covers were turned back, the white of the sheets glistening. And a warm coverlet of down covered with yellow silk had slipped from the foot of the bed to the floor, where it lay like a simulation of some sprawling, living form.

The dog, slipping ahead of Kennedy, paused in the middle of the floor. It was not until Kennedy had come up beside him that he saw what had brought Naldo to a stop. Beside the bed lay Mrs. Morrel in her nightgown looking at him with dreamy eyes and a strangely distorted face, puffed as though she were restraining laughter. It seemed she had got up to open the door, for the Yale key was close to her outstretched hand.

She had one odd fashion in her dress for the night. A narrow red ribbon was tied around her throat.

Kennedy sank gradually down on one knee, for he knew that it was not a ribbon at all. Not even a silk ribbon could cling like paint to the skin in this manner. It was blood. And there at the side of the throat he saw a projecting twist of copper wire. With the dog the murderer had almost succeeded. With the woman, his method had been perfect.

Naldo was hunting across the room, his nose close to the rug, following a hot trail. It was hard for Kennedy to pick up the leash and drag him back. Still the big brute tried to read the signs which were intelligible to him alone while Kennedy stared about the room. With his back turned to Mrs. Morrel, he had the grisly fancy that she was rising secretly from the floor behind him, grinning, and always with those half open dreaming eyes. Something else glanced at him near the door between Mrs. Morrel's chamber and the next room. The green glint of it reminded him of the eyes of Naldo when that dog meant wicked business; but what he picked up from the rug was a big square cut emerald with a bit of very fine golden chain dripping from it.

He remembered, then, Camilla Cuyas. Certainly there was no other person in the tavern who would wear such jewels as this. He kept saying the name to himself in a passion of self disdain and horror. For how clear it had been, long ago. It was to her voice that the dog had come in the lounge on that first occasion before dinner. It was in her eyes that he had seen the first real glint of danger. She, then, was the owner of Naldo? He should have acted long ago; and Mrs. Morrel would still be alive to unravel some of the intricacies of the mystery; she would still be able to tell Kennedy why she had known so well that Harrison died not by accident, but by design.

He left the room and went down the hall with the dog. It was not so hard to keep Naldo in hand when Italian was used on him. At the next door he rapped. He did not have to be told that when the answer came it would be in the voice of Camilla Cuyas. Presently he heard her footfall like a whisper across the floor. The door opened only the slightest crack.

"No darling—no, no!" said her whisper. And the door started to close again.

"It's not MacDonald," he said.

The door shut quickly—like the blink of an eye, thought Kennedy. Then it opened on an afterthought, as it were.

There was a night lamp burning in her room, the wick turned down very low. By the dim waver of that light he saw the dark of her skin and the white of her nightgown. When she saw Kennedy she covered herself with her hands and arms and gasped.

The dog, he noticed, made not a move towards her. If she were the answer, she had checked him with that first gesture and that first gasping breath of word, no doubt.

"I thought you might not want this lying around," he said.

He held out the emerald in the flat of his hand, with the little golden pool of chain lying around it.

"But where—are, thank you!" she said.

He would have liked to use the flashlight on her face to study the changes in it, but after all not much light was needed. From the instant he used the name of MacDonald she had been trembling. He could have guessed that the big, breezy, smiling man had a way with him that melted women. He was the type they trust and then the devil is to pay.

She was taking the emerald out of his hand with shuddering fingers.

"Put something around you. I want to talk," directed Kennedy.

She looked up at him for one challenging moment. Then she went silently, obediently to the chair beside her bed and put on a dressing gown. She was only a wisp of a creature but that devilish little trick with the copper wire did not require much strength. He entered the room. The dog had to be dragged behind him.

Kennedy turned up the flame of the lamp. Camilla blinked at it. Cold or modesty made her keep drawing the gown close. She started to protest and was afraid to speak. So for a moment of silence he watched her. This was work which he wished could have been assigned to another than him. Perhaps she had done murder not long before, yet he felt there must be some approach to his final question. He could not accuse her flatly. Human nature revolted against such a thing. He studied her. There was a slight double scratch on her left cheek.


Illustration

Kennedy turned up the flame of the lamp.

"Do you know where I found the emerald?" he asked.

"In the lounge?" she asked. "I was wearing it this evening. Sometimes I go to sleep with the silly thing."

She spaced her words well apart so as to have enough breath for the utterance of them.

"Listen to me," said Kennedy. "You're in terrible pain. I've seen fish speared. It's as though you were on the point of one of those spears."

"Oh no. I'm all right," she said. "Only, if you wouldn't..."

"MacDonald? Are you thinking of him," he said.

"Please don't!" she begged him.

He shook his head.

"It's not about MacDonald that I want to talk. I want to tell you where I found the emerald. Beyond that door."

She waited, watching him across a gap of blood and centuries, an incalculable distance between two races.

"Why did you go into Mrs. Morrel's room?" he asked.

She started. "Why do you ask such things?" she wanted to know.

"Come, come!" said he. "Why did you go there?"

"I don't know," she answered, yielding to his dominance at once. "She interested me. I wanted to talk to her."

"Why did she interest you?"

"That's hard to tell. She seemed unusual."

"It was because of MacDonald, wasn't it?"

She winced. The question struck her cold and shivering. He thought as he noted the fabric of her gown and the fancy, cloth-covered buttons, of how many small handholders we may have up on other people, by how many doors we may enter their minds, if only we know how to use the tiny opportunities that are presented to us. Every change of voice and gesture is a little page to a whole volume about our character, but only to him who hath knowledge can knowledge be given. He felt himself the most ignorant of humans, and he resolved then and there on such a course of intensive study as afterwards would consume all his days with industry.

"It was MacDonald, wasn't it?" he repeated.

She managed to whisper: "Yes."

"You thought what about them?"

"There seemed to be a flash between them when he first came into the lounge tonight."

"Ah, a sort of recognition?"

"Yes."

"You suspected some old affair—or new one?"

"I didn't know. I—I simply suspected."

"And you asked MacDonald about it afterwards?"

"I found out that I was wrong."

"He told you that you were wrong?"

"Yes."

"But you didn't believe him?"

Her eyes widened.

"Why—" she began to deny, but she changed her mind and made herself admit: "No. I didn't believe him."

She paused and looked at the floor. After a moment she said: "I won't talk any more."

"It's foolish for you not to talk," he said. "I know everything that you want to hide."

She shrank smaller than ever.

"So you'd better tell me what passed between you and Mrs. Morrel," he told her. "You got into her room on some pleasant pretext. Then you began to probe and ask questions. You remember?"

"No. I don't remember," she said, her head still down.

"Do you remember how she slapped your face?"

Her hand flicked up to the scratched cheek and down again.

"And after that," said Kennedy, ominously, "what did you do to her?"

She began to tremble again.

"I'll say nothing more," she answered, without looking up.

He put Naldo back in the little ante-room where he had slept. To get there, he had to pass through the room of Mrs. Morrel. There was a strong temptation to cover the swollen face and the falsely dreaming eyes, but the police would want to see the body undisturbed. Word must be dispatched to the nearest officer of the law at once. So he went out down the hall to Julie Vernon's room at the far end of the corridor.

There was a line of very dim light under her door. It went out when he knocked. He didn't like that. The dim twilight in the hall seemed to fade into deeper darkness that closed in. And there was no sound in Seven Mile House. From all beneath that roof there was no sign of life and in his heart there remained that dreadful sense of unseen approach.

He knocked on the door again. It opened without a sound. The hall was almost daylight compared with the paint-black darkness within the room.

"Are you there?" he asked.

"Yes," said Julie Vernon in a clear, hard voice.

"I want to talk to you," he said.

"Well?" she asked.

"Will you make a light?"

"Isn't the darkness good enough?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Then wait till the morning."

"I'm sorry, that will hardly do."

After a moment she said: "Very well."

Her clothes made a receding whisper. A match scratched. It made a small blue arc of light, a queer little air-drawn hieroglyphic against blackness. Then yellow flame spurted, steadied. It showed her face and hands, the crystal bowl and slightly smoked chimney of a lamp. She drew up the chimney, touched the wick with the match, and pushed down the chimney again. It made a faint screech against the metal guards. Light began to pour through the room, losing its strength only in the corners. It was a hard, bare room with a bit of grey matting by the bed. A tall chest of drawers had lost a good deal of paint. A couple of dim old photographs looked out with glimmering faces, ghosts of ghosts. Every one else in Seven Mile House had comfort, its mistress chose the worst. She lived like a cowpuncher in a bunkhouse. That fine taste, that eye for warmth and grace she lavished only on her guests. Even her clothes were a mere property to charm her clients. To her own eyes she was sufficiently outfitted in a grey old shawl that her grandmother must have worn, and it drank the colour out of her face. It made her old. Coming into her room, Kennedy felt that he had entered a soul. He was astonished and shocked.

She stood back behind the lamp.

"Do you see me well enough now?" she asked.

"Yes, thank you," he answered.

"Good," she said. "We try to please all our guests."

He felt her contempt. All the glow, all the femininity had left her.

"I wanted to ask you about tonight," he said. "If you don't mind, Miss Vernon."

"Vernon is good enough," she said. "You know the real name. Why don't you use it?"

"I've no wish to use it, now or ever," he said.

"Not if you get your price, of course. What is your price, Mr. Kennedy?"

"That's unkind," said Kennedy.

"Must l think about kindness, too?" she asked.

"Extraordinarily interesting," said Kennedy, deeply depressed but also adding a piece to his knowledge of this strange world. "Now you feel, apparently, that your back is against the wall, and all the pretence and the fine, smooth feathers of pretty manners are forgotten. Do all women simulate a weakness and a need to intrigue a man?"

"This is nonsense," she said.

"Ah, but I don't think so," said Kennedy. "I've gained a great deal for my notebook."

"What is it you want?" she asked.

"What I'd like most," said Kennedy, "is to get out of my bones the feeling that your friend Fargo is standing just outside the door, ready to blow in the top of my head. I'm horribly afraid."

"Don't you see that it's no good to pretend simplicity and all that?" she asked. "I know that you're as clever and as cool—as a snake in the grass. Who sent you after me here?"

"No one. Only chance," he explained. "You see, being alarmed and a little desperate, you now are over-reaching yourself. You jump at conclusions in the dark, and therefore you miss."

"I've had enough of this," she told him. "Come to your point or leave my room. If you're after money, make sense about it and I'll have to see what I can do."

"In that case," he said, "I only have to tell you that there has been a second death in Seven Mile House."

He watched her closely, for it was his belief that the controllable mind will pour the light and shadows of its workings into the eyes no matter how we strive to suppress it, but now though the lamplight shone full in her face he could perceive not a flicker of change. He had to realise that already she was under such a tension that there was no slack to be taken up by new stressing. If the pool is frozen, he thought, the stones you throw will merely glance from the surface.

She merely said: "Then there will be still more for the police to do when they come. Will you get down to business?"

"That is all the business I wanted to talk about," said Kennedy.

"You might as well come out with it now, as later," she told him.

He shook his bead. There still was fear in him, but there was pity also.

He said, deliberately: "Try to understand. So far as I'm concerned you are Julie Vernon for ever."

Then he got out of the room. So much emotion had escaped into the last words that a bit of moisture had entered his eyes, a thing he greatly regretted because it spoilt the clarity with which he had been studying the girl; he had only a blurred image of her beyond the lamp, a pale and set face.

He was thinking of this as he stood again in the hall, closing the door. Then on his right something stirred. To his startled mind it seemed at first only a step from him. Then he saw that it was the black silhouette of a man beyond the verandah window. Kennedy made himself thin against the wall, but the man from the verandah came straight towards him up the corridor as though he could see in the dark. By the style of his hat and the bigness around his shoulders, above all by something erect and poised and free in the bearing, Kennedy knew(#perhaps "it was" is missing here?) Daniel Fargo. The Westerner came up close and said: "Kennedy, isn't it?"

"That's right," said Kennedy.

"What in hell are you doing here?" asked Fargo.

"Bringing news," said Kennedy.

"What news is there tonight?" snapped Fargo.

"Ancora imparo," said Kennedy.

"If you're still learning," answered Fargo readily, "what do you know already that's worth hearing?"

One valuable thing at least was known to Kennedy now. The owner of the dog spoke Italian; so did Daniel Fargo. The dog's owner was as ruthless as a wild beast; and Fargo seemed as hard a man as Kennedy had ever known. There was no use considering soft-handed methods with him.

"Come with me," said Kennedy.

He led the way straight down the hall and into the room of Mrs. Morrel. The last time he was there he had lighted a lamp, so that now there was plenty of illumination for him to study the reactions of Fargo. He felt at once that he might as well have studied the reactions of a Western mountain. That sun-blackened skin hardly could turn pale. As for expression, the jaw of Fargo always seemed to set hard, and there was a puckered, long-distance look about his eyes. Looking down at Mrs. Morrel, he said nothing at all but took out tobacco and wheat-straw papers from a vest pocket. He sifted tobacco into the creased paper and rolled the cigarette afterwards with one unthinking hand. His match he lighted with a flick of his thumbnail. It seemed to Kennedy that the man never would be through inhaling the first long, deep breath of smoke, and afterwards the exhalation lasted even longer. A thin cloud silvered half the air of the room as Fargo said: "And you were in yonder?"

He kept staring at the dead woman, but his long arm reached out and pointed in the direction of the anteroom. Almost at once there was a frantic outburst from the dog.

"Fa quieta, Naldo!" called Kennedy.

The dog subsided to a mournful complaint and then was still.

"Seemed to know your voice, didn't he?" said Kennedy, casually.

"My voice? Why should he know my voice?" asked Fargo, turning those cold, clear eyes of his on Kennedy.

"I'll bring him in here to keep quiet," suggested Kennedy.

He started towards the door, but Fargo commanded sharply: "Leave the dog where he is!"

Kennedy turned back.

Fargo explained gruffly: "The sheriff will want to look things over without having the scene all messed up by a dog's feet."

He returned to his first thought. "And you were sleeping right through it in there?" he repeated.

"The dog woke me up," said Kennedy.

"I mean," said Fargo, "that all through the struggle and the fall of the body and all that, you didn't hear a thing?"


Illustration

"I mean," said Fargo, "that all through the struggle you didn't hear a thing?"

"Not a whisper," said Kennedy, studying him.

"You're a good sleeper," said Fargo, sourly. "How did the dog wake you up?"

"By standing up and stalking towards the door there. That much sound was enough to get my eyes open. If there had been a real struggle in here, I certainly would have heard it."

"She's no child," said Fargo. "She wouldn't die without putting up a fight."

"The excitement and the struggle," said Kennedy, "would have killed her pretty fast. And the rug is thick. It would muffle noises of feet."

"You know about things like this, do you?" asked Fargo. He had a way of speaking before he turned his eyes, deliberately on the face of Kennedy.

"I've read a little," said Kennedy.

"Reading!" echoed Fargo, and laughed without sound. "That gal would have made a noise," he declared. "And you were right in the next room."

"You mean that I may have killed her?" asked Kennedy.

"I'm not talking about meanings. I'm asking questions," said Fargo.

"We ought to get word to the police," said Kennedy.

"Sure. Sure," answered Fargo.

"Perhaps she hit her head or the floor in falling and was stunned, so that there was no struggle," said Kennedy.

"Looks like she wanted to tell us something," muttered Fargo "There's no kind of trouble but what grows out of a woman."

"Or a strong man," continued Kennedy, "could have lifted her off the floor after he jerked the noose home. Her struggle would have been in the air then, and soundless enough."

He considered the strength of the big man with appreciation. Fargo, as he stared at the fallen body, grew more and more uneasy.

"It's bad. It's damned bad," he said. "It makes you think..."

He failed to say what it made him think, but pulled out a big handkerchief from the side pocket of his coat. Something tenuous and light fell from the pocket and made no sound upon the rug. Fargo was mopping his wet face.

"Let the law take hold and find out what it can," he said, "I'll get word to the sheriff. It's going to be a bad habit for him to send out mule litters to carry in the dead from Seven Mile House."

"It's a pity for Miss Vernon," said Kennedy.

The big head of Fargo jerked around. His eyes took angry hold on Kennedy, like a hand.

"What's a pity for her?" he asked. "What's she got to do with it?"

"Why, my dear fellow, she has nothing to do with it, I suppose."

"There's a way of talking," said Fargo, "that ain't popular in these parts. It's all right for your big towns, but it ain't worth a damn out in the West, here. You better pick up and learn some new talking manners."

"I've said nothing," Kennedy explained patiently, "except to point out that Miss Vernon is apt to lose a good deal of business after this."

"Never mind Miss Vernon. And damn business. Damn all business," said Fargo. "I've had enough of it. The hotel business be damned."

He turned towards the door into the hall. He paused and swung back to Kennedy a step, though not meeting with his eyes.

"When people talk to you about this, you wanta think before you start chattering," said Fargo. "There's a lot of people have come to much harm from talking too much in this part of the world."

"I dare say," agreed Kennedy, politely.

"Yeah, but don't dare to say too much. That's the point," said Fargo.

He went out of the room with this sullen conclusion and left Kennedy staring at what had fallen from his pocket. It was a bright little wisp of copper wire, perhaps a foot long, but so fine that it looked more like gilded thread than metal.


CHAPTER XII

KENNEDY sat in his room till the coming of dawn, wrapped in a blanket, but shuddering in spite of it and not entirely from the cold; and all the while the dog crouched before the door that led to Mrs. Morrel's room, like a magnetic finger pointing towards the pole. He kept adding up his facts because when the sheriff came there were certain things that he would have to tell. He could guess that there had been a strong attachment between Harrison and Mrs. Morrel; and the two lovers both were dead. This implied a logic that was far from accidental. It implied above all that one hand or set of hands had been occupied in the killings and inevitably the owner of the dog must be in some manner involved in the guilt. He had the grim assurance that, when the morning came and the hotel guests were up, it would be very odd indeed if Naldo were not given a chance to perform his act of loving identification.

After that he tried to stop thinking but pictures kept rising in his mind. Fargo, like a dark scarecrow, on the porch that night. Camilla Cuyas suddenly struck with awareness as she stared in the lounge at Mrs. Morrel and MacDonald or again with her head bowed stubbornly refusing to speak a word; he heard her speak and watched the great dog slowly come towards her. He saw above all Julie Vernon in the toolshed with the dead man, and guarding herself from intrusion with the gun, and once more the words of the newspaper clipping drifted through his memory.

A sort of perversely obstinate surety kept rising in him. There was too much against her. It would not be the common course of events if she were the guilty person. There would be no story to it; and always at this point in his fancies he had to remember that this was no fiction of the mind but a blood red reality.

After a while, though he was not aware that he had slept, he found that the woods outside his window had advanced out of the night. They stood black against a brilliant sky of dawn and somewhere birds were making a racket among the branches. He prepared to get up. This was to be his day, he felt, when everything was to come clear concerning the murders in Seven Mile House. It was to be his best day—or perhaps his last. He was gathering himself to rise and dress. Instead the effort put him to sleep.

When he wakened there was a tingle of distant voices at his ears, far off; and at his door a hand was knocking.

"Yes," he called.

The voice of Fargo ordered, sternly. "Miss Vernon says that she told you that you'd be leaving this morning. Now she wants you to start; you and the dog hit the grit, Kennedy."

"Just a minute!" protested Kennedy, and getting from the couch quickly, he opened the door only to hear the retreating footfall of Fargo already disappearing around the curve of the verandah at the end of the building.

The dizziness of this awakening from deep sleep remained with him for a moment. He felt that during his slumber the world had slipped an immeasurable distance past him and now he was suddenly being outlawed and driven from all chance to work out his problem for his own sake and that of society. The sun, when he got out on the verandah, he discovered to be nearly two hours higher in the sky. By this time perhaps half the guests were scattered from the tavern and he would have no chance again to find them all together unless he skulked and lurked about the premises until the close of the day again. For such skulkers and lurkers he imagined that Daniel Fargo might have very summary procedures in store. In a word, an hour or so of sleep had reduced him to somewhat of an absurdity.

When he came down to the front of the house, he saw in fact that only seven or eight people were in sight, and these were gathered at the side of the mill-pond. Obviously they had not been permitted to know of the death of Mrs. Morrel. They were watching MacDonald's clumsy use of the paddle with which he was steering a fragile little canoe up and down the pool. With him in the boat sat Camilla Cuyas. Fargo, standing beside Julie Vernon, watched that progress and the women sent their shrilling laughter up the slope to Kennedy as MacDonald in turning the canoe almost capsized it.

One of the stable men rode up on a swag-bellied little bronco.

"You name of Kennedy?" he asked.

"Yes," said Kennedy.

"The boss says I'm to see you over the hills," said the hired man. "Shall we start along."


Illustration

"The boss says I'm to see you over the hills," said the hired man.

"I have to pick up my knapsack in the cabin yonder," said Kennedy.

"I got it already packed," said the stableman, showing it strapped behind his saddle. He grinned at Kennedy. "Shall we shack along, partner?"

It was to be like that, then. Here, at the very verge of the wishing-gate, he was to be drifted out of the picture?

"I have to see Miss Vernon," said Kennedy.

"For what?" asked the man, pertinently.

He was a lean, dried-up fellow and he sat his horse in a way that looked like the efficient cattleman. Out of the holster near his knee appeared the worn handle of a revolver.

"I must pay my bill," said Kennedy.

"You can pay me," said the stableman. "Everything's been thought of," he added, with another grin.

"Very well, then," said Kennedy. "I'll go, but I'll leave the dog behind."

"You most particular are to take the dog with you," declared the Westerner.

"But he's not mine," said Kennedy.

"There ain't nobody specially claiming him here," said the man on the horse. "So shall we just be drifting, brother?"

But here there was an outbreak of many voices by the pool as MacDonald in making a turn across the current actually tipped the canoe on its side. He and Camilla instantly were struggling in the water with everyone along the shore making an outcry and MacDonald's own voice sending a mellow shout of laughter up the hill. Naldo promptly went mad. He tried to tug Kennedy down the hill. When that would not work, he whirled and leapt at his second master with a real devil in his eyes. Kennedy dropped the chain and jumped clear of the danger, while Naldo went down the hill like a racer.

"Now, I dunno about that..." drawled the stableman, and leaving Kennedy in the lurch, he galloped after Naldo down the slope. Kennedy hurried in pursuit. Here was the moment, at last, when the dog was sure to go straight to his owner. Every suspect was in sight.


Illustration

Naldo was already only a jump from the people along the millpond. Fargo and Julie Vernon stood right in the path of the big beast. The heart of Kennedy sank as he watched Naldo bearing down on them, but they were not the forms in the eye of the dog. He shot past them, leapt from the bank, and headed straight for the place where Camilla, laughing, floundering in the water, was being supported by MacDonald. It was all very merry nonsense as Naldo bore down on them. Only Fargo shouted a warning. Neither Camilla or MacDonald paid the least heed to Naldo's coming. He lay out long and low in the water, his back entirely below the surface except where the shoulders laboured and the head and neck stretched out in a line. He was right on them, now, and at the last instant MacDonald whirled over and saw him. Kennedy watched with every sense alert and heard the sharp, quick exclamation of MacDonald. It might have been mere surprise or an irresistible impulse of fear. Yet this was no attack. It was a rescue. Naldo caught MacDonald by the shoulder of his coat and tried with all his might to drag him to the safety of the shore. The guests along the shore began to applaud. It was story-book stuff, that scene, until MacDonald struck at the big dog and snarled some command. Poor Naldo, swimming off with his head turned, made slowly for the shore again and his master glanced hastily over the people by the water's edge until his eye came to Kennedy. There it paused for one eloquent instant.

Was it only fear, Kennedy wondered, that entered MacDonald, or was there also devising, considering malice? He tried to imagine the heaped-up confusion which must now be pouring on that mind, but all Kennedy could conceive, at that moment, was the picture of Naldo coming joyously on his master in the dark of the trees and how the wire noose had been slipped over his neck as a reward.

As MacDonald waded ashore, assisting Camilla, Naldo backed away into the shallows, pointed his nose at the sky, and loosed once more that long wolf's howl which had roused the hotel the night before.

MacDonald silenced him with a word but Naldo was now in a frenzy of delight, racing here and there, returning, leaping into the air near his master.

"But it's your dog, Mr. MacDonald," cried old Mrs. Lancaster. "How curious! It's been your dog all the time, hasn't it!"

"A basso!" commanded MacDonald.

Naldo, struck out of the very air, as it were, dropped to the ground and lay there trembling with happiness, his long tail sweeping from side to side, his eyes worshipped this divine creature, the master.

"I thought I was rid of him," said MacDonald. "To tell you the truth about him, I've had half a dozen lawsuits filed by neighbours because he killed their dogs. I took him off on this trip and the first thing he did was to kill another dog in a village we went through. That was getting a bit thick. I brought him up in the hills and shot him. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life; but my friend Kennedy brought him back to life."

He turned with his disarming smile to Kennedy. "But the other night when he was in the lounge?" asked Kennedy.

"I tried to make you think that he was simply a stray," said MacDonald, shrugging his shoulders. "So I gave a word and a sign and he went to his corner. I really was through with the poor devil and I knew that he'd found a good master."

There should have been, thought Kennedy, a tremendous tension; the very air should have been alive with fear and suspense now that at last the dog had taken him to the end of the trail, instead, the easy manner of MacDonald was melting everyone into good humoured acquiescence. He was already starting up the slope with Camilla to change clothes in Seven Mile House.

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute," said Fargo.

He looked like a man who is panting with exhaustion, his face faded to yellow, his lips parted, his nostrils distended.

"Let's go up together" said Fargo. "Julie, come along. And you, Kennedy."

"What's the matter?" asked MacDonald.

"We'll just sit down and have a little chat," said Fargo.

"As soon as we get into dry clothes," answered MacDonald.

"Before that," declared Fargo. "It'll only take a minute."

MacDonald hesitated an instant but it required a greater annoyance than this to break down his large tolerance. He suddenly was in amiable agreement.

"And you come," said Fargo to Kennedy. That was why he found himself walking among his four suspects up the hill; he was entering the hotel with them; with them he was climbing the stairs; it seemed to him that he had half expected before this the suggestion that the talking should be done in the privacy of a bedroom; and actually now MacDonald was inviting them through his door. Kennedy was alone among the four of them, and every one of them, he had some reason to believe, was capable of murder.


CHAPTER XIII

MACDONALD'S room was at a corner of the building, looking out on one side across the verandah of the second floor to the hillside and on the other the window held a picture of the ruined mill, the mill dam, a portion of the pound, and the far side of the valley, growing ragged as it climbed towards the mountains. While Kennedy was taking stock of this he heard Fargo lock the door behind them as a token that something was to happen before anyone was permitted to leave. But Kennedy continued to dwell on MacDonald. Perhaps he was what he seemed and what he proclaimed himself, simply the innocent master of a dog too devilish to be kept. In that case the night-flight through the trees and the garroting of Naldo was a mystery. Perhaps MacDonald knew that the most extreme danger surrounded him now, but his colour had not altered, his eye remained frank and open to look into any face in the room, and above all he still had that smile which was as much a part of him as any physical feature, for it seemed to come from an unalterable content with life as he found it. He amused himself, as he often did, by taking out from a vest pocket that small ball of twine and doing with its expanded noose the tricks of a cow puncher with his rope, making the spinning noose rise and descend, sometimes snagging with it the toe of his shoe or the knob of a chair's back, until the narrow cord seemed to have a snaky volition of its own.

Through the open windows the air blew warm, and Naldo, lying at his master's feet, still panted from his exertions. MacDonald himself seemed as warm as toast, but Camilla had taken from the couch a woollen throw in which she wrapped herself. She sat in a corner of the couch with her eyes on the floor, almost never lifting them except to view Kennedy with a look of swift, deep malice which troubled him as though an angry voice had spoken his name suddenly in the room. Once or twice her hand touched the almost invisible scratches on her cheek. Julie Vernon sat in a straight chair close to the hillside window. She wore a dress of thin blue poplin with a yellow cord loosely knotted at her throat. She kept her head high, as usual, and when she smiled there was that slightly impish lift at the corners of the mouth, and yet she was under a heavy strain. Wherever she looked in the room her eyes never could meet those of Kennedy. Everyone, including Kennedy, was in repose. Only Fargo stirred about.

He was so nervous that when he started to roll a cigarette, he dropped the small sack of tobacco and as he leaned Kennedy saw, in the man's coat the clear imprint of a revolver. Even without a gun, the manner of Fargo made him seem dangerous. There was about him the crisp energy of a man who knows that something must be done and who has in mind exactly how to do it. He was taking charge of this odd meeting, and he began by saying: "Everyone here knows that Mrs. Morrel is dead in her room. She was choked with a wire, the sort of wire that's been used to wind the dynamo I've been experimenting with."

No one inside the room made a comment upon this speech but from the guests who were still down beside the pond there came a rattle of laughter and exclamations.

Fargo said: "I want to hear from the man who has been lingering around the toolshed where that fine wire was kept. It was tucked away in a corner. I was the only one who knew about it... Kennedy, I found your footprints all around the shed."

"I thought I saw someone go from the house to the shed," said Kennedy. "I remembered that the body of Harrison was there. So I slipped up to the shed and took a look. But there was no-one inside."

He only knew the strain Julie had been under by noting how she relaxed. Her eyes found him for the first time and fled away towards a corner.

"That sort of talk doesn't mean much," said Fargo. "But look here. Kennedy arrives and we find that a man has just been killed in a landslide. That same night a woman sleeping in the room next to his, with an unlocked door between, is strangled with a noose of wire taken from the toolshed he's been hanging around. Now what does anybody think?"

Only Fargo looked at him. The rest seemed to be examining their inward thoughts. And this was how it felt to have the gun held under one's nose, thought Kennedy—this shock to the heart and the brain. The sickness and the cold of danger had come to him often enough during the night before, but to be in peril of the law itself was a far different matter.

He could not help saying: "Very interesting. When the law turns loose against a man, it intends to kill his reputation with his body. It wishes to blot him out. He is erased from the page. A horrible thought, isn't it?"

"And if the law can't do it, there's still Judge Lynch in some parts of the world," said Fargo.

"Ah, I understand," said Kennedy, almost smiling in spite of fear. "You're afraid, Fargo! That's what it is that's working in you."

"I'm afraid?" echoed Fargo, yelling with anger.

"Not for yourself," said Kennedy.

He saw that he had struck with a crushing weight. He saw also that he had almost wished the gun out of hiding and into the hand of Fargo.

"Steady, Danny. Steady!" whispered Julie Vernon.

"We ought to go back to the dog and his master," said Kennedy. "You've told us, MacDonald, why you shot Naldo. But you kept running after he came to the house here. Why did you try to kill him when he was following you through the woods, MacDonald? Why did you use a twist of wire exactly like the one that killed Mrs. Morrel?"

"I?" asked MacDonald. "I try to throttle him?"

He relaxed and shook his head. "I held a gun and looked into the poor fellow's eyes just once, with the intention of killing him. That was enough for me."

"As far as Harrison was concerned," said Fargo, "we know MacDonald was on the verandah having coffee with the rest of them."

"That's true," said Camilla.

"What do you say for yourself?" asked Fargo of Kennedy.

"I have no motive, you see," answered Kennedy. "I never saw any of the people before. And it's plain that there must have been a motive. Mrs. Morrel came here to see Harrison. They both were killed. Someone disliked the affair between them and destroyed the two of them, Harrison with skill and forethought, and Mrs. Morrel with such subtlety because it was necessary to kill her before she talked. She was holding something back. She was ready to endure through the night although she was in fear. But behind her locked door and her bolted shutters she hoped that the murderer would come and try to bargain with her. A whisper through the door, for instance, and a promise of hard cash? Mrs. Morrel was in a position worth definite money, apparently, and she knew it."

MacDonald, rewinding his twine, was about to slip it into his pocket but it escaped from his fingers and rolled across the floor. Kennedy picked it up. The part of the string that had unwound he replaced in order and passed the twine back to its owner.

"It is rather terrible and yet delightful," said Kennedy. "These scattered strands begin to dispose themselves in my hands. They weave into a rope, a hangman's rope, I think. At this moment I cannot be sure. Perhaps all four of you may be combined together. In that case, I am a lost man. But my feeling is that only one is guilty; then three will stand on my side."

"This is talk. This is nothing but damned talk," said Fargo, angrily.

"Go back to the case of MacDonald, because the dog led me to him at last. Marvellous thought, isn't it, that in spite of MacDonald's wonderful devices, the dog reached him—love found out a way?"

He smiled on them.

Then he continued: "The motives. We must find those. And we notice that something passed between the eyes of Mrs. Morrel and MacDonald when we entered the lounge last night after she had fainted. Something profoundly important. Something more than recognition, perhaps? You, Miss Cuyas, noticed it, did you not?"

She looked up to him quickly, and her face wrinkled with hate like paper subjected to heat.

"I noticed nothing," she said in a harsh voice.

"Our affections blind us," said Kennedy. "But ah, don't the rest of you see? Here is MacDonald the mining engineer. That job takes a man often far away from his home. During his journeys, someone came to know his wife. He knew the name, not the man. But with his dog he followed the man Harrison to the place of the assignation. Then he had to dispose of the dog because Harrison, who did not know MacDonald by sight, certainly would have seen the dog around the MacDonald house. Then Harrison is disposed of. And still MacDonald has such perfect nerve that he remains on the premises. A sudden disappearance might cause suspicion to follow him. To explain why he stays on and to prove that he still can attract a woman, he begins to pay attention to Miss Cuyas. And unfortunately for him, Mrs. Morrel appears. The second murder must follow."

MacDonald laughed a little.

"I think you do this very well, Kennedy," he said. "Imagination, and a lot of fervour. That's what I like about it. Tell them how you explain me being on the porch when this chap Harrison went West. How did I manage to do him in? Remote control? Absent treatment?"

Camilla, turning a bit to MacDonald, opened her eyes and let her soul go out to him. It seemed to Kennedy a beautiful moment, but his hands were busy with a match-box and a rounded flower bowl on the small table. He tipped the bowl and rested the bottom of it, at one side, on the up-ended match-box.

"The control was not very remote," said Kennedy.

He rubbed together thumb and forefinger because of a slight stickiness on them, and he found on the skin a little waved thread almost exactly like the one which reposed in the folded page of his notebook. He looked up at MacDonald almost sadly.

"Not very remote," repeated Kennedy. "A mining engineer who has studied loose ground is the very one who understands how to start a landslide. At the top of the slope those big rocks only needed to be loosened. Then one of them is tipped, ready to fall, except that it is braced on another smaller stone which is the trigger, one might say, with which that whole buck-shot load of stones and shale and loose debris was to be fired down—tons of it—on William Harrison."

"But what pulled the trigger?" demanded Fargo.

"It only needed a slight jerk," said Kennedy.

He tapped the match-box. It slipped from under the big glass bowl which rocked back to a level and spilt water on the top of the table.

"And to give the jerk," said Kennedy, "was easily arranged. It was necessary, first, merely to gauge the approximate time that Harrison would take to walk up into the little canyon. That was not a matter for precision, either, since the landslide would sweep quite a large front. So a thin line of cord was strung from the trigger down the hillside—it is not many yards long—and past the house to the side of the verandah. In the evening it would be nearly invisible. And so, as Mr. MacDonald smoked his cigarette at the end of the verandah, when the right time came he took hold of the end of that twine, that well-waxed piece of twine, and gave it the needed pull. Instantly a small sound of thunder began on the opposite side of the hill. William Harrison looked up and saw the ruin pouring down on him. He had barely time for that single look, and then he was gone that vital step away from all of you. There was only one coincidence—that the very stone used as a trigger, knocked headlong by the fall of the large boulder, should have proved to be the missile which struck him first and made death swift, painless. The waxy fuzz of the twine still clung to it on one side: the blood of Harrison was on the other."

A change had come in MacDonald so strange that Kennedy hardly recognised him. There was a new look in his eyes, like a fish rising from deep shadows into the light. And his whole face had changed, lengthened, as it were. It came to Kennedy that the alteration was caused by the cessation of the MacDonald smile.

"As a result we shall have to hold you, MacDonald," said Kennedy, "until we've proved or disproved that Mrs. Morrel was your wife."

"Ah, well," said MacDonald. "Somehow this grows rather a bore to me."

Camilla Cuyas, as the big fellow turned towards the window, shrugging his shoulders, caught up a hand to her face to shut out the sight of him. She had what Kennedy had seen before, at Seven Mile House—a screaming face while not a sound came from her lips. And yet the ugly tension in her made the very brain of Kennedy ache, as though he had been listening to a piercing cry.

A long blue-barrelled gun slipped into the hand of Fargo.

"We'll have to talk more about this, MacDonald," he said. And he gave a quick, sidelong glance to Julie Vernon so filled with relief from long-continued fear and anxiety that his whole story was clear to Kennedy. It had been Julie Vernon that Fargo suspected from the first. He knew, then, the story of her past life, and the part which Harrison had played in it.

"Very well," said MacDonald. "We'll talk it all out."

He added, without looking at the dog:

"Attention! Prenda questa posizione. Tenga! Tenga!"

"Look out, Fargo!" called Kennedy, but Morrel had sprung on to the verandah and out of view even as Fargo lifted his gun.

He ran toward the window with the revolver poised. There Naldo blocked the way, silent, but bristling for action and with the green devil in his eyes that Kennedy had seen there before.

They heard the heavy step of Morrel cross the verandah, then the crunching noise as he landed on the gravel below. No sound of footfalls followed.

Kennedy jumped back into the hall, ran through it to the verandah, and out to the railing. But there was no sight of a fugitive towards the barn or toward the creek. Morrel seemed to have vanished out of the clear air until Kennedy looked straight down at the ground. There lay Morrel as he had fallen, face down, his arms flung up over his head. There was hardly a stain of blood. A sharp edge of stone had driven to the brain like a spear-point.


CHAPTER XIV

A SOUND of bustle filled Seven Mile House. The sheriff had arrived with a deputy and a pair of mules, with a long-handled stretcher slung between them. As for the guests, every one of them was preparing a horrified departure. Kennedy listened to the small sounds from the top of the hill, staring down at the rubble with which the slide had filled the canyon. Behind him he heard nothing; it was Naldo who turned suddenly, snarling. And the voice of Fargo said: "You've got the knapsack on your back. Are you sure you're pulling out, Kennedy?"

Kennedy looked at that brown, grim face and shrugged his shoulders.

"Why should I stay?" he asked.

"Perhaps the sheriff would want to know about the fellow who saw through all these shenanigans," said Fargo.

"Naldo is the only real witness," answered Kennedy, "and he can't talk, you know."

"There's Julie, then," said Fargo. "Maybe she'd like to talk over some things with you? She seems to think so."

"Some day I'll come back," said Kennedy. "But just now, I'd be like a reminder to her of things we want to forget."

"What things?" asked Fargo, scowling.

"You know about them, also," said Kennedy, gravely. "And we all want to forget they ever happened."

After a moment Fargo said: "I told her it would be this way. She wouldn't believe there was anybody that clean. She wouldn't believe you'd take no advantage. But I guessed."

Kennedy said hastily: "I'm sorry that this is likely to spoil the business of Seven Mile House."

"I'm glad of it," said Fargo. "It'll be a ranch house now, not a damned hotel. A few years of honest use will clean it up in the minds of everybody."

"I'm glad of that," said Kennedy.

"You wouldn't stay a few days?" asked Fargo, rather wistfully.

"I'd better go on. The dog wouldn't be happy where there's so many traces of his master around, and no place to find him. Tell me, Fargo. Had Harrison come here for blackmail?"

"Maybe not," said Fargo. "Maybe it was more to make sure that he could be at home with Mrs. Morrel in a place where people wouldn't tattle on him. They could sneak out of the way, here, him and his woman, and Julie would have to protect them... Are you really moving on, now?"

"Yes," said Kennedy, and held out his hand. "You'll be happy with Julie. It's going to be a great marriage."

"All I got to do is hold up my end of things," agreed Fargo. And he added: "Where do you head for, Kennedy?"

"Wherever the dog takes me," said Kennedy.

"But he'll never take you on a trail like the last one, again," said Fargo.

"Thank God for that!" exclaimed Kennedy.

"Ah, but do you mean it?" asked Fargo.

"Mean it? I'm ten years older and grayer than I was yesterday!"

"Maybe," said Fargo.

He squinted at Kennedy with long-distance eyes.

Then he said slowly: "But I've spent my own time on trails. I've hunted wolf and deer and bear; but the only trail that counts is a man-trail."

Kennedy gasped.

"Do you think," he said, "that I'd willingly go into this sort of thing again?"

"It ain't a man's will. It's his gifts that lead him along," said Fargo.

And Kennedy remembered it when he was miles away among the hills. The dog no longer pulled back to return towards Seven Mile House and his vanished master. He had entered with Kennedy the circle of a new horizon, but what point of the compass to steer towards Kennedy could not tell. His old plan of a rambling vacation seemed now pointless and foolish. The new man inside him wanted some other goal.

The hills that rolled against the blue sky were no more a temptation or a promise of new worlds beyond them. Something weakened in his heart and urged him to return to Seven Mile House, where he would be sure of a welcome from Julie and Fargo. But he knew that he would have to go on. He had heard a truth which rang a bell in his brain. His destination now was unapparent, but as Fargo had said, his gifts at last would lead him.

THE END


Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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