J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

The lost valley online

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bush fire here at some period during the last twenty years. It destroyed
the hut, it burnt down the wood, and it made that pile of lime you
found, Cumshaw."

"What pile was that?" Moira queried quickly. "I didn't see any."

"Mr. Cumshaw passed a pile in the bushes as we came along," I said
off-handedly. "The heat must have rendered the stones down."

She accepted my explanation at its face value.

"No wonder the place remained hidden," I ran on. "If you'll look over
east, where there should be a lone tree, you won't find any. It's wattle
everywhere you look. The fire cleared out all the trees and forced the
wattle on in their place. If you came by here on any side but the one we
came by you'd take this to be just an ordinary hollow full of wattle."

"You're talking nothing else but wattle," Cumshaw interrupted. "What has
the wattle to do with the fire anyway?"

"Why, don't you see?" I cried. "Without the fire there wouldn't have
been any wattle here. The seed'll lie dormant in the ground for years
sometimes; it takes great heat to germinate them. That's why wattle
always springs up in profusion after there's been a bush fire. The same
thing happens with grass, the coarser kinds, though to a lesser extent."

"I see," he said gravely. "It means that we are back just where we
began."

"It doesn't mean anything of the sort," I said quickly. "All this is in
our favor. We're better off than we were before."

"I don't see how that is," he replied.

"But it is," I persisted, "and I'll show you why when the time comes.
And now there's plenty to be done. One of us has to go back for the
provisions that we left behind last night, and the other's got to stop
here with Miss Drummond and run up a bit of a bark humpy that'll keep
off the wind and won't let the rain through. Now if you're as hungry as
I am you'll understand just how pressing the need of that food is. It's
you or I, Cumshaw. Which of us is to go?"

"I'll toss you," Cumshaw offered.

I nodded, and he drew a coin from out his pocket and spun it in the air.

"Heads!" I called.

We bent down over it. "It's tail," said Cumshaw. "I go back for the
food," I said.

I straightened up and spoke seriously to the pair of them. "Cumshaw," I
said, "do as much as you can while I'm away, and keep one eye on the
horizon all the time. You must remember that there's always danger
about; the luck's been with us so far, but it may turn any minute, and
our rivals are just the sort of men who'd come on you suddenly and shoot
before you could say 'Jack Robinson.' And as for you, Moira, keep out of
harm's way and do what you can towards keeping a good lookout. I'm going
across to the other side, as I reckon that we must have travelled round
the valley last night."

"You'll be careful, won't you, Jim, dear?" Moira whispered.

"Aren't I always careful?" I said. "It's you that's got to watch out.
Now, one kiss, dear. I'll be back as soon as I can possibly manage it."

* * * * *

Five minutes later I had gained the further wall of the valley, and
found that, with the help of the bushes, it was the easiest thing
imaginable for an active man like myself to haul himself up over the
ridge and drop on the track which Abel Cumshaw and the late Mr. Bradby
had trodden so many years before. I took my bearings carefully, then
snapped up my pocket-compass and set off down the road with as jaunty a
swing as I was capable of. I had long got over my stiffness, and now
that the sun was shining brightly I began to feel more confident than
ever that all was going well. If it had not been for the terrible way in
which the dread purpose of our rivals had been brought home to us
already I would have felt absolutely at ease. As it was I did not let my
rosy anticipations of the future interfere at all with my sense of
caution.




CHAPTER V.

DIES IRAE.


As a matter of strict fact the place was much further away than I had
anticipated. We must have wandered a considerable distance in the
confusion of the evening's storm and covered more ground than we had
thought. I had positioned the sun as I had left the valley and judged
the time to be about eleven o'clock; "that," I thought, "will bring me
back by two at the very latest." But really it was close on five, and
the shadows were already dropping down over the country-side before I
was ready to return. I found our little store of goods intact, though
most of them were rain-soaked, and as a measure of good fortune I
retrieved the tent whose sudden departure had been the primary cause of
our hurriedly shifting camp. There was a fair load in all, but when I
had made it up and rolled everything packwise in the tent and fastened
it on my shoulders with what odd bits of string I found handy, there
wasn't anything in it that would seriously try the strength of a
seasoned explorer like myself. Then, because the night was beginning to
draw in and I did not want to go stumbling through the valley in the
dark, I set off at my top pace. I don't claim to be anything wonderful
as far as walking is concerned, but if I were ever asked what I
considered my record I would point back to that very night. I forced
myself along, my whole being intent on reaching the valley before the
sun slipped down behind the hills. I think it was more will-power than
sheer physical strength that kept me moving. I was just a little anxious
about Moira too. Cumshaw was a fine chap and clever in his own way,
though he did have occasional spurts of temper; but he lacked my
woodcraft experience, and I wasn't sure but what he might go to pieces
if any prowlers pounced down on him unawares. Neither he nor Moira had
ever come up against anything that would teach them to act as quickly as
they could think, and, though they might work like niggers when they
were under someone else's orders, an emergency that threw them on their
own resources might find them seriously wanting.

The shadows lengthened as I sped along, the tired yellow sun slipped
down behind the hills like a penny-into-the-slot machine, and the early
April twilight touched all inanimate objects with its own drab lack of
coloring. I had no fear of losing my way in the darkness - I had too much
locality sense for that - but the possibilities of my being ambushed
appeared too many to be pleasant. A hurrying man, who is also
heavily-laden, cannot pick his footsteps with the meticulous care that
he would like, and it seemed within the bounds of probability that some
strange listener might start out on my track and put an abrupt period to
my career of usefulness. I have an unqualified and not unreasonable
objection to being cut off in what is practically the flower of my
youth. I was afraid. I admit that quite frankly, and I have yet to find
the man who has not known fear whenever he drifted into a tight corner.
But fear is not the hall-mark of a coward; it is at worst a natural
impulse to seek safety and take precautions, and at its best it is the
intellectual penalty that a strong man pays for having a will-power that
will not permit him to scurry away from danger and earth himself like a
rabbit in its burrow.

I reached the valley without incident, scrambled down the historic
slope, now as slippery as a child's mud-slide, and was half-way across
the open space before I received my first shock. Some queer sixth sense
pulled me up in mid-stride. I had heard nothing, I had seen nothing; but
for all that I knew that a strange and obtrusive presence was very close
to me. The New Guinea native can at times tell the presence of an enemy
simply by his sense of smell, and I suppose I've lived so long amongst
them that I have acquired something of this kind. Be this as it may, I
was aware of the other man's proximity long before my faculties went
into action and confirmed me in my belief.

I slipped my shoulders out of the pack-strings and dropped it
noiselessly on the ground. At that precise instant I heard a stealthy
movement on my left hand. It was so dark that I could not see an inch in
front of my face, but a little eddy of the breeze brought me the merest
whiff of stale tobacco - the sort of smell that comes from a pipe that
has been put out before it has completely burnt away. It was that dead
scent that always seems to hang about the vicinity of a newly quenched
fire. I was so close that I caught the sound of the man's breathing.
With every second breath there came a barely perceptible wheeze, and in
an instant my mind flashed back to the night of the burglary in Bryce's
house and the man I had caught coming out of the library. I was so sure
of it that I wasted no further time in stalking him; no two men in the
world could have that same regular wheezing breath. It requires a neat
sense of distance to catch an invisible man round the throat when he and
everything else tangible and real is hidden under cover of Stygian
darkness; but this time I made the snatch of my life, and as luck would
have it, had him by the windpipe before he realised that there was
anyone within a quarter of a mile of him. I didn't give him a chance to
cry out - I had no idea how close his friends were, if he had any - but
just threw all my weight into my clutching hands and quietly but
inexorably choked the life out of him. In the struggle his hat fell off
and I released one hand and ran it through his hair. Up till then there
was a lingering suspicion at the back of my mind, that after all I might
have throttled Cumshaw by mistake, but the feel of that straight hair
completely burked the last of my doubts. There was no possible chance of
mistaking Cumshaw's curly crop for the strands I held in my free hand,
for he suddenly went limp under my hands, and when I fumbled for his
heart I could not feel it beating. At the time I felt rather cut up, and
considered that I had practically killed the man in cold blood; but
afterwards, when I came to reckon up the tally of disaster, I was sorry
that I had passed him out so peacefully. There were a lot of other
methods I might have used had I known in time. But then I didn't, and
that makes all the difference.

Satisfied in my own mind that the stranger was out of action for good
and all, I rose to my feet and threaded my way back to where I had left
my pack. I slipped the strings over my shoulders and set off again in
the direction I hoped to find Moira and my companion. But scarcely had I
taken a dozen steps forward when the silence of the night was shattered
by the report of a revolver, and in an instant a perfect fusillade had
begun. I dropped all caution at that. Throwing the pack from off my
shoulders, I drew my revolver as I ran. I simply tore across the
intervening space like a red god of vengeance suddenly descended on a
planet of sin. The sound of the shots had maddened me beyond all belief,
and in my then mood I would have walked single-handed into a whole army.
Luckily for myself I had not gone far before I collided with a wattle
bush, and the scratches I received brought me back to a saner frame of
mind. I saw with an appalling clarity of vision that I was taking the
worst possible course. Cumshaw and Moira were being attacked - that was
beyond question - and my game was to come upon the attackers unawares and
either rout or put as many of them out of action as I could with the
weapons at my command.

So when I moved off again I had slackened my pace down to a stealthy
cat-like tread that took me along with an incredible absence of noise.
As I moved forward I began to turn the configuration of the place over
in my mind and wonder to what practical use I could put the fine natural
cover of the bushes. As I could see none I put the matter out of my head
and devoted all my energies to coming to immediate grips with the men
who had murdered the eternal peace of the valley.

Presently I caught sight of a little red flash from one of the
revolvers, but as I had no idea as to whose it was I held my hand and
commenced to circle round the fight. It must be remembered, in order to
gauge the seriousness of the situation, that the night was as black as
the ace of spades, and that the only guide I had was the occasional
flash from a revolver - a flash that might have come from either friend
or foe; I had nothing to tell me which. It was in this queer fashion
that I was progressing when the toe of my boot touched something soft
and alien. I slipped down by the side of it and ran my hand over it. It
was a man's body - the still warm body from which the pulsing life had
suddenly been hurled. With my experience of the other man I had handled
earlier in the night I felt for the hair, and, to my utter horror, I
clutched a crop of short, crisp curls. It was Albert Cumshaw beyond a
doubt. I did not waste a moment in useless sentimentality over the dead.
The truth flashed across my mind with the blinding clearness of
lightning. Moira was by herself, fighting like some heroic goddess
against those other bestial savages. I know it is the fashion to picture
men in such moments as going berserker, but I don't think in my case
that I have ever been so sanely clear-headed in my life. It was a
monstrous and incredible thing that this quiet little corner of the
quietest little State in Australia should be polluted by the presence of
the incarnate fiends that had murdered Bryce, that had killed Cumshaw,
and were even now seeking to send Moira to join them in the shades. A
cold, pitiless anger took possession of me, and I set about my work of
vengeance as calmly as if I were going rabbit-shooting. I knew now of a
surety that I could shoot at any man who came within range without fear
or favor.

It was then I blessed my stars for the matted undergrowth and the wild
profusion of wattle. The one deadened the sound of my movements and the
other gave me all the cover I needed. The game was now fairly in my
hands, and if I lost it would be through no one's fault but my own. It
was quite evident on the face of it that the attacking force had no idea
that a third party was maneuvering outside the range of fire, and I
counted on that fact to assist me in my work. The one drawback at
present was that I had no notion which was friend and which was foe. The
shots seemed to come from all round the compass, and any one of them
might be Moira's. It was quite on the cards that she was moving round in
a circle, in the full knowledge that every time she fired she shot at an
enemy, and again it was just as likely that she knew nothing at all
about Cumshaw's death. Clearly it was a situation that called for an
immense amount of care on my part.

I had no time to waste puzzling the matter out; whatever I did had to be
done as quickly as possible, for I had no guarantee that the one-sided
warfare might not terminate fatally at any moment. One of the attackers
was just as likely to hit Moira as she was to hit him. I had slipped up
the catch of my revolver long before this, and was carrying it in such a
fashion that it could be fired instantly. I felt ready for any
emergency, and the contingency that presently arose found me well
prepared. There was a stealthy rush through the undergrowth, and a man
backed hastily in my direction. I couldn't see him, but I knew that it
was a man by the sound of the footsteps. There is always a perceptible
difference between the footsteps of a man and a woman, but it requires a
trained ear to pick it out. I slipped down into cover as he rushed back,
and, judging more by sound than sight, I fired as he passed me. He came
down heavily amidst a crash of breaking branches and the smashing of
twigs. "I seem to be the only sure-footed man about to-night," I thought
as the fellow thudded to the ground. At that precise moment, as if to
give the lie direct to me, a deafening report sounded right in my ear, a
pain as of a red-hot needle stabbed through my right shoulder, and I
pitched forward on my face. Even as my nose ploughed through the soft
soil it occurred to me to wonder if I had received a shot intended for
the other man, or if he was not as dead as I had fancied and signalised
his escape by shooting me in his turn. I was more scared than hurt, and
I quickly picked myself up and clapped an anxious hand to my throbbing
shoulder. The ball, by the feel of it, had done nothing worse than skim
through the fleshy part of my arm, and I was in no wise incapacitated. I
thanked my lucky stars that I was whole and entire, save for a spoonful
or so of unwanted blood, for I rather guessed that I had heavy work
ahead of me before I went to sleep that night.

Just as my mind was clearing again I became aware that someone was
striking matches. I distinctly heard the scrape of one along the top of
the box, and I fancied I saw a tiny phosphorescent glow such as a match
makes when it misfires, but in that I may have been mistaken. As I
watched for another flash it dawned on me that the artillery had ceased
fire, and, for aught I knew to the contrary, I was probably the last
bird topped off that night. Therefore the person with the matches could
only be one of the victorious side, and was just as obviously counting
up the casualties.

There came another little interlude of scraping, a match spluttered
undecidedly for a moment and then glowed brightly. After the Stygian
darkness the light came as a queer physical shock, and for the space of
a heart-beat I blinked like an owl in broad daylight. I think the other
person must have been just as much dazzled as I was, for the light died
out and the glowing tip of the match fell to the ground without a
movement from either of us. But it was followed almost instantly by
another match, less damp than its fellow, for it splashed into light
right away. And there in the little circle of radiance I caught sight of
the one face on earth that I ever wished to see again.

"Moira!" I gasped and glided to her side.

She dropped the match in the surprise of the moment, and I heard her
breath come and go before she answered, "You, Jim! Oh, I'm so glad! I
thought perhaps...."

"They didn't," I said grimly, cutting across her thoughts. "It was the
other way about."

"Mr. Cumshaw, Jim? Have you seen him anywhere?"

"No," I said truthfully enough. I hadn't seen him; it had been too dark,
and I dared not strike a match.

"Oh, I'm afraid he's been shot. We got separated in the darkness, and I
don't know what happened to him."

"How did you get separated?" I queried quickly.

"We were making for the cave and I lost him in the dark. After that they
started firing, and I just fired back, more to keep up my courage than
anything."

"But where on earth did you get the revolver? You hadn't one of your
own."

"Yes, I had, Jim. I brought it with me, and I didn't say anything
because I thought you might laugh or else be angry with me."

"You've certainly shown that you know how to use it," I said dryly.

Something in my voice must have told her what had happened. "What do you
mean?" she asked in a frightened tone. "Did I shoot anyone?"

"Yes," I said slowly. "You pinked me. Right in the shoulder. It's only a
flesh-wound; nothing to worry about."

"I've hurt you and I didn't mean to," she wailed.

I reached out and seized her by the shoulders. "Look here, Moira," I
said with a semblance of sternness in my voice, "you've done a man's
work to-night and it's making you hysterical. Don't let it. Pull
yourself together, for heaven's sake if not for mine."

I think it was just that last bit that brought her round. "I'm sorry,
Jim," she said, though what there was to be sorry about was more than I
could say.

"And now, Moira," I ran on before she had time to say anything more,
"the sooner we finish that interrupted journey to the cave the better.
It's not as good as the hut would be if it was still standing, but it
gives us shelter, and that's the main thing. Also we can light a fire
and sleep the night in peace, now that the gang seems to have been
rubbed out for good."

She made no answer, so I took her arm, and thus we commenced our walk
across the valley. I found the pack without any trouble, though my heart
was in my mouth for fear that we would trip over poor Cumshaw's body.
But the luck was with me that night, though it hadn't been with him, and
I reached the pack and hoisted it on my shoulders without either of us
striking any of the victims of the fight. The sting of the wound in my
shoulder made the pack an uncomfortable burden, but I bore it as best I
could, for I was afraid that Moira would notice me if I kept wriggling
it into an easier position. So I fought the pain all the way to the
cave, which we reached in something under five minutes. Moira did not
speak a word all the way, and somehow I hadn't the heart to break the
news of Cumshaw's death to her. It had to be done sooner or later, I
knew, but I was inclined to put it off as long as possible.

Once in the cave I built a little fire of chips and dry bracken that had
somehow escaped the rain. That done I turned with a clear conscience to
the task of making tea. Moira, however, had forestalled me; the billy
was already full, and she but awaited me to adjust the tripod of sticks
that held it in its place over the fire. It was while I was bending over
doing this that she must have noticed the bloodstains on my sleeve. At
any rate, when I straightened up, she looked at me with accusation in
her eyes.

"Why didn't you tell me before that it was as bad as that?" she asked.

"Because it isn't," I answered with cheerful paradox. But she would have
none of my jesting, and if I hadn't allowed her to wash and bind it up
right away I'm afraid I wouldn't have got any tea that night. When she
finished she placed her hands upon my shoulders and kissed me full on
the lips.

"My dear," she said brokenly, "you would die for me, I know, and yet I
so little deserve your love."

I had tact enough to suppress the banality that was trembling on my
lips.

* * * * *

"I wonder what could have happened to Mr. Cumshaw?" she remarked about
an hour later. "You'd have thought he'd have been here long ago if he
was all right."

"Maybe," I said, bending my head over the fire so she would not see my
tell-tale face, "maybe he's not satisfied that this is our party."

There was an interval of silence and, though I did not look up, I knew
that she was regarding me steadfastly. I could feel her eyes boring into
my head like twin gimlets.

"Jim," she said suddenly and sharply, "what are you hiding from me? What
has happened to Mr. Cumshaw? I know something has gone wrong by the way
you're acting."

I raised my eyes to meet hers; it was impossible to hide it any longer.
"The very worst that could happen," I said frozenly, and I dropped my
head once more.

When I looked up again she was crying very softly to herself. I could
understand her sorrow, and for once her regard for the man caused me no
stab of pain; one cannot be jealous of the dead.




CHAPTER VI.

THE SOLUTION.


The grey light of the early dawn found me wide awake and alert. I felt
much fatigued after my exertions of the previous night, and would dearly
have liked to have slept an hour or so longer, but there was that to be
done which would admit of no delay. Further out in the Valley lay three
dead men, and I felt I must get them out of sight before Moira awoke.
Accordingly I scribbled a short note of explanation on a leaf torn from
my pocket-book, placed it in a conspicuous position, and, taking with me
the light spade we had brought with us, I slipped noiselessly out of the
cave. I found the bodies of our two enemies without any trouble, but, to
my great surprise, there was no trace of Cumshaw. He had disappeared as
utterly as if the earth had opened up and swallowed him. True, there
were broken branches and snapped twigs galore, but of signs that would
show me where the body had been taken or what had happened after I had
left, there was absolutely none. For the moment I wondered if it had all
been but a vivid dream, but the sight of the torn and scarred ground and
the memory of the other two bodies told me that it was only too real.
Obviously then the corpse had been moved, but where or by whom I could
not say.

I spent the next half-hour in scouring the valley from end to end, yet
when I had finished I was compelled to admit that I was no nearer to a
solution than before. All the time, of course, there was a perfectly
simple explanation staring me in the face, but it was so infernally
obvious that I missed it.

As my search had not led me any further forward, I shut the matter out


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 15 of 16)