J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

The lost valley online

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it could barely limp along.

"This won't do," said Bradby in despair. "We're losing time we can ill
afford. All the same this old crock'll have to struggle on until
nightfall, and then we'll see whether we'll have to shoot it."

"I don't like shooting a horse," Cumshaw remarked. "It's like murder."

Bradby's only answer was a muttered oath. The trials of the Journey were
bringing out the worst side of the man, a side that Cumshaw had never
seen before. He eyed his companion thoughtfully. If the wilderness was
to get on Bradby's nerves at this early stage, Cumshaw could see that
there was likely to be very serious trouble before the end came. The air
in the highlands was laden with a freshness which, while it stung the
men to action, at the same time put a keen edge on their tempers. Both
of them were children of the warm, sun-kissed lowlands, and the
difference of even a few degrees of temperature had a remarkable effect
on them. With Abel Cumshaw it was such as to send a warm glow into his
cheeks; the cold bite of the air made his blood sparkle like new wine
and urged him on to fresh efforts. It affected Mr. Bradby in another and
a worse way. He became sullen, and there was a certain marked
vindictiveness in the way he spurred his lame horse on to exertions that
were plainly too much for it. Once or twice Abel was on the point of
remonstrating with him, but for the sake of peace he held his tongue and
waited, in the hope that the day would bring forth some measure of
relief. But nothing happened that morning, and the hope died within him.

Late that day, when the pace had slowed down almost to a crawl, they
stumbled across the place by the simplest kind of accident. They had
been dropping down to lower levels the greater part of the day, and
somewhere about three o'clock in the afternoon - they were not quite sure
of the hour, since the sun was masked by the trees - they found
themselves in what looked like a narrow gully. Both sides of it were
lined with thick bushes of golden wattle that shut out all view on
either hand. There were shadows galore in this narrow gully, and the
place itself looked almost as dark as the entrance to the Pit. Cumshaw,
who had a classical education and had not been able to forget it, any
more than the fact that he had once been a gentleman, murmured under his
breath.

"What's that?" Bradby asked sharply.

Cumshaw repeated his quotation. "Facilis est descensus Averno," he said.

"What does that mean?" Bradby enquired, in the tone of a man who
imagines he is being insulted in a language he does not understand.

"It's easy to go to hell," Cumshaw translated.

Bradby shot one sharp curious glance at him, but made no comment on what
he had said. They rode on in silence.

Presently they came to a patch of ground that had been broken by the
wind or the rain, or perhaps both together. The shadows so fell that the
travellers did not realise the treacherous nature of the soil until they
were right in the middle of it. Cumshaw's horse floundered and would
have fallen on its knees had he not reined in sharply. This caused him
to cannon into his companion's mount. Bradby pulled back sharply, in
some way jarring his animal's sore leg as he did so. It reared up on its
haunches with the pain, and in the most approved manner bucked its rider
off. He shot up in the air, described a beautiful half-circle, and
sailed through the barrier of wattle like a human projectile.

Cumshaw slipped off his horse with the quickness of thought. He had
enough presence of mind to tether both his own and Bradby's mount, and
then he cautiously parted the bushes. For the moment he could see
nothing but a great wall of golden blossoms, and then out of the depths
came Bradby's furious voice. He was cursing the horse and the slope and
everything and everyone within hearing in the simple and forceful
fashion of the Australian bushman.

Cumshaw called to him and was answered with an oath.

"Where are you?" he repeated.

"Down here," said the voice, this time modifying its language. "Step
carefully or you'll come a cropper."

Mr. Cumshaw pulled the bushes apart and found that he was standing on
the verge of a sheer descent.

"Mind your eye," said the voice of the still invisible Mr. Bradby. "I've
found the very place we've been looking for."




CHAPTER III.

THE HIDDEN VALLEY.


Abel Cumshaw caught at the bushes to save himself from slipping and
turned a curious eye on the scene before him. Really there wasn't very
much for him to see. Bradby had fallen into a miniature valley so small
that it looked like the creation of a child. The place was heavily
timbered, and almost all definable features were masked beneath the
trees. Abel saw even in the first glance that here was just that ideal
hiding-place for which they had been searching. Softly and cautiously he
commenced to descend. The slope was slippery with green grass, and he
finished the last few yards with a run. He came down amongst a lot of
bracken and fern, and suffered no worse harm than the shock of a sudden
stoppage. Mr. Bradby, he saw, was sitting almost buried in a mass of
bracken, and looking much cheerier than his recent utterance would seem
to suggest.

"Are you hurt?" Cumshaw asked him. He held out a helping hand. Mr.
Bradby struggled to his feet and smiled at his questioner.

"Hurt? No," he said. "Only surprised. Why, Abel, here's the very place
we want. We could hide here for years, and they could be scouring the
country for us, and them not a penny the wiser. That tumble of mine was
just the luckiest thing imaginable. You talk about falling into hell!
Why, man, we've fallen into heaven, and if we don't make the best use we
can of the place we're the biggest duffers alive."

"How are we to get the horses down here?" queried the practical Mr.
Cumshaw.

Mr. Bradby eyed the slope down which he had come so precipitately, and
then pursed up his lips.

"It don't look so easy from here," he said at length. "And from what I
can see this place is walled in all round."

"Whether it is or not," said Cumshaw, "we've got to get those horses
down, and get them down at once."

"But how?"

"That's what we've got to find out," said Cumshaw. And with that he
commenced to climb up the slope again. It was hard work, much harder
than coming down, but in the end he managed it. When he reached the top
he turned, to find that Bradby was almost at his heels. He surveyed the
place with the eye of a trained bushman; then he said, "We can manage
it, Jack. It's a case of sliding them down, but once we get them started
they'll go right enough."

"We'll give it a try," said Mr. Bradby. His usual good humor was fast
re-asserting itself now that they had reached a haven of comparative
safety, and he was ready to try any scheme that promised even the
smallest chance of success.

Without wasting any further words on the matter the two men scrambled
through the bushes and made their way towards the horses. The lame
animal had quite recovered from its fright, and suffered its owner to
lead it up the slight rise to the wattles, though there it drew back as
if conscious of the drop beneath. But by dint of prodding and coaxing
Bradby forced it through the crackling brush, and then, with a wild
whinny of fear, it lost its footing and slid down the slope in an
avalanche of grass and twigs. Cumshaw's mount made the descent in fine
style, and the two men followed.

"Now," said Bradby, when they stood once more on level ground, "the
further we get into this timber the better, I say. I don't suppose any
passer-by would be likely to notice that we've come down here, do you?"

"All things considered," Mr. Cumshaw said slowly, "we've made little
mess. We've got to thank that grassy slope for that. If it had been dry
earth there'd have been tracks enough in all conscience. Yes, I think we
can reasonably say that we've no need to fear anything - unless
accidents."

As near as they could judge the valley was about a mile across at its
widest, but it merged so gently into the further side of the ranges that
it was almost impossible to say exactly. The wood grew thicker as the
men advanced, until presently it was with difficulty that they could
make their way forward.

"Getting pretty close," Bradby said at length.

Cumshaw nodded. He was too busy thinking over certain little
peculiarities of the wood to take much notice of his companion's
remarks. His quick eye had seen little cuts in the trees, bits of bark
that had been chipped off here and there, and the sight set him
wondering. The cuts were curiously like the blazing of a trail. They
were regular, they were all about the same height on the tree-trunks,
and they looked as if they had been made with an axe, not the crude
stone weapon of an aborigine, but the sharp steel axe of a white man.
Yet the place seemed deserted, and in all the air was that sense of
utter desolation and absence of life that only those who have lived
close to Nature can feel and understand.

"We're not the first here," Cumshaw said suddenly.

Bradby turned on him in alarm. "What d'y' mean?" he asked indistinctly.

"Some of the trees are blazed," Cumshaw pointed out. "The cuts are
clean, and that means they've been done with an axe. But they're all
weather-worn, so it must have been some time ago."

"I don't like the look of it all the same," Bradby said despondently.
"It means that someone else has stumbled on this place - it doesn't
matter much whether it was yesterday or ten years ago - and what has been
done before will almost certainly be done again. If those troopers come
this way - - "

"What's the good of crossing the bridge before you come to it?" Cumshaw
interrupted. "We've been lucky so far, and who's to say our luck won't
hold out till the end?"

"It's the end I'm looking at," Bradby said gloomily. "It might be the
sort of end neither of us'd fancy."

Mr. Cumshaw made no immediate reply. He was peering very intently
through the boles of the trees as if he was not quite sure that what he
saw was really there.

"What are you looking at?" Bradby demanded irritably.

"If that's not a bit of a clearing and a hut on the edge of it, I'm a
lunatic," Abel Cumshaw said.

"Hell!" ejaculated Bradby, and he in his turn peered through the trees.

"There's no smoke coming from it," Cumshaw said comfortingly. "It looks
deserted. I daresay it's been like that for years."

"I don't like this place," Bradby remarked with naive irrelevance. "It
fair gives me the creeps. There's spooks about here."

"If you talk that way," said Cumshaw fiercely, "I'll put a bullet
through you. That sort of talk's only fit for children. You're not a
child. You ought to have more sense. There's things here doubtless that
you and I don't understand, but they're quite capable of a rational
explanation, so don't go digging up any stuff about ghosts until you
find you can't explain them any other way. There's the hut in front of
us, and either there's someone in it or there isn't. If there is, we've
got to use our wits; if there isn't, the game's ours."

"Have it your own way," said Bradby. "I'm game enough when I know what
I'm tackling. I only mentioned I didn't like the feel of the place, and
I don't see that that gives you any call to say what you have."

"We'll call it off until we've investigated," Cumshaw replied. "You stay
here with the horses, and I'll creep forward a bit and see if anyone's
home. All the same, I'm willing to bet that the place's deserted."

"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't," suggested Bradby. "However, you go off
as you say and I'll wait here for you."

Abel Cumshaw threw the reins to his companion, slid his revolver
holsters round to the front within easy reach, should he need the
weapons they contained, and slipped through the trees with the silence
of a marauding tom-cat. Bradby watched him with some misgiving. No man
could say with certainty just what secret the dilapidated hut held, and
Bradby's state of mind was such that he took the gloomier view of the
situation. He would not have been very much surprised to see half a
dozen troopers issue from the hut. He would have taken it as the
inevitable ending of such an adventure. He failed to understand the
natural cheerfulness with which Cumshaw faced the situation. He was
bright and volatile enough himself when dealing with the ordinary
man - his courage was of that average quality that is always at its best
when exercised before an admiring or frightened audience - but the
abnormal brought home to him his own futility of purpose and his natural
helplessness. While realising all this he was not man enough to rise
above and overcome the limitations of his spirit.

Cumshaw swung round the corner of the hut and out of sight. Then it was
that Bradby began to feel absolutely deserted, and the queer
oppressiveness of the place descended on him as one shuts down the lid
of a box. He was not the type of man who finds companionship in animals,
and the nearness of the horses in nowise mitigated his fear. For he was
afraid, unashamedly afraid, though of what he could no more have said
than he could fly. He knew without understanding how the knowledge came
to him that the valley was filled with the ghosts of dead things, dead
trees, dead leaves, and perhaps dead hopes. His nerve was going; the
intolerably close atmosphere of the wood brought little beads of
perspiration out on him, and when he brushed his forehead with a
trembling hand he was surprised to find it wet.

The horses stirred uneasily, and the lame animal gave a low whinny.

Then in the next instant the eternal silence of the valley was broken by
a human voice. The suddenness of it startled Bradby, and it wasn't until
he saw Cumshaw waving to him that he realised that the sound he had
heard was his companion's "Coo-ee." He loosed his hold on the reins,
allowing the two horses to wander where they might, and commenced to run
towards the hut. Even as he ran his faculties collected themselves, and
when he reached the corner of the hut he was almost his own man again.

Cumshaw eyed him curiously as he pulled up. "Startled you a bit, didn't
I?" he said.

"I thought something had happened to you when I heard you call," Bradby
answered, a trifle untruthfully.

"Don't you worry about me," Cumshaw said with affected unconcern, though
something in the man's nervous tone troubled him in a way he could not
define. "I've found the old chap who made the marks on the trees," he
ran on.

"Where?" Bradby demanded. But he looked towards the hut-door
apprehensively.

"He's in there," Cumshaw said, following the other's glance, "but there
isn't anything to worry about. He's as dead as a door-nail."

"Dead," Bradby repeated dazedly.

Cumshaw nodded. "This many a day," he said in semi-explanation. "But
come in and see what there is to be seen."

As if perfectly sure of his companion's acquiescence he turned and
walked into the hut. After a moment's hesitation Bradby followed. The
place smelt a trifle musty, and all the air was full of the subtle reek
of decay. It was rather dim in the hut, and at first Mr. Bradby could
see nothing but some indefinite shapes that might be anything at all.
Gradually his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom, and in the
farthest corner he spied a rough bed of planks.

"That's him," said Mr. Cumshaw irreverently, and stirred something with
his foot.

Mr. Bradby looked a little closer this time. The something that Cumshaw
had stirred turned out to be the whitened skeleton of a man. The hideous
thing about it was that it was not stretched out on the plank bed; it
was propped up, as if the man had died while sitting. A rusted gun lay
in line with the thing's left thigh, and Bradby, following the muzzle
with a trained eye, saw that it was pointed at the man's head.

"Suicide," said Cumshaw. "Look at his head. He's blown out what little
brains he had."

He was right. The frontal bones of the skull were shattered and twisted
by the force of the charge; they gave the rest of the face a ghastly,
leering look which turned Bradby physically sick. The other man was
evidently troubled by no such qualms, for he loosened the gun from the
bony hand that had clung to it so desperately through all those years,
and tumbled the skeleton itself on to the plank bed.

"I'm going outside," said Mr. Bradby suddenly, and disappeared through
the doorway with suspicious alacrity.

Mr. Cumshaw laughed softly. "Weak stomach," he murmured. "Well,
someone's got to clear this old chap out, and, as it's certain to be me,
I might as well do it first as last."

At that he gathered the white, clean-picked bones up in his arms,
carried his burden through the doorway, and deposited it carefully on
the grass outside the hut. His eye lighted on Mr. Bradby, who was
sitting on the ground some distance away, looking very pale, and having
all the appearance of a man who had reluctantly parted with his lunch.

"What the deuce are you doing?" he asked in tones that betrayed a
certain amount of trepidation not unmixed with vague horror.

"Evicting the late tenant," Mr. Cumshaw grinned with cheerful
inconsequence.

"Why?"

There was more than a question in the quick monosyllable. It contained
also a hint of protest.

"Because we're going to camp inside the hut, and two's company and
three's more of a crowd than I like. This old chap can stop out here for
the night; I don't suppose he'll mind it much. If he's gone to the Abode
of the Blessed he'll be above worrying over such mundane matters, and if
he's anywhere else he'll be too much occupied to do anything but attend
to the burnt spots."

"You shouldn't speak like that of the dead," Bradby said solemnly. "It's
not right."

"If we stopped to consider whether a thing was right or wrong before we
did it," Cumshaw retorted, "you and I wouldn't be here this evening. If
you're wise, you'll leave all that talk till morning. The shadows are
closing in, and we'll have the night on us before we know where we are.
I'd suggest that we catch the horses while the light's still good. You
must remember they've got those saddle-bags on them still. Of course,
there's just enough food to make a meal for a pair of small-sized
tom-cats, but I fancy we'll manage on it till morning. Who knows what we
may find then? Perhaps a kangaroo, or at the worst a native-bear."

Bradby rose reluctantly to his feet, and, with a nervous glance at the
remains of the unknown, followed his partner in crime. The horses had
not strayed far; they were busily cropping the grass, and seemed quite
content with their lot. The two men unloaded the saddle-bags and carried
the contents into the hut. Then they hobbled the horses and turned them
loose for the night.

The shadows were gathering in by this, and already the trees were full
of misty shapes that had no relation to fact. The bulk of the hills shut
out the last rays of the sun, though the western sky was still faintly
tinged with crimson. Just as they entered the hut Cumshaw paused for a
moment and ran his eye over the scene. The place seemed peaceful enough,
but he had that queer sense of the bushman, a sense almost amounting to
an instinct, that told him that there was trouble ahead. He shook the
feeling off almost immediately and entered the hut. Bradby, despite his
dislike of the conglomeration of bones on the grass outside, lingered a
second or so longer. There was a light in the eastern sky, perhaps a
faint reflection of the glow of the dying day, that lit up the hump of
the nearest hill. It was practically bare of vegetation; only a solitary
tree stood a lone sentinel on its very summit, showing black against the
horizon.

The thought that sprung into Bradby's mind at that was that here was a
landmark which there could be no possibility of mistaking. Already
certain plans were germinating in his brain, and he saw, or fancied he
saw, a way of turning this latest discovery to practical use. The
bleached bones in front of him, too, became a means to an end, and, with
the smile of a man who sees the way suddenly made clear, he too entered
the hut in his turn.

Cumshaw was busily engaged in laying a fire in the centre of the hut,
taking care, however, that its glow would not show through the open
doorway. He looked up as Bradby entered and said, "I think we're safe in
starting a fire here. It can't be seen by anyone crossing the hills,
though there isn't much likelihood of that, and all the smoke we make
won't do us any harm. There's always a certain amount of mist in a place
like this, and a man a mile away wouldn't be able to tell the
difference."

"Go ahead," said Mr. Bradby quietly. "You know what you are doing."

The compliment in the last remark was desperately like an insult, but
Cumshaw did not seem to notice anything out of the way, for he bent down
to his work and whistled cheerfully while he coaxed the fire into a
blaze. Presently it was burning brightly, the billy was filled with
water from the water-bottle, and tea was in a fair way of being
prepared. "Great place, this," Cumshaw said presently.

"Great place," Mr. Bradby assented. "A man can die here without anyone
being any the wiser."

Mr. Cumshaw made no reply to that, but the corners of his mouth
tightened as if he suspected some hidden meaning beneath that smooth
remark.




CHAPTER IV.

WHEN THIEVES FALL OUT.


Just as the first rays of the rising sun slanted into the hut Mr. Bradby
stirred uneasily, threw out one arm, rolled over on his side, and in an
instant was wide-awake. He sat up abruptly and gazed around. Abel
Cumshaw was still sleeping peacefully, his head pillowed on the
saddle-bags that contained the plunder. Mr. Bradby smiled grimly at the
sight. Softly, without waking his companion, he rose from his rough bed
and glided to the open doorway. He stood there for a moment, drinking in
the fresh morning air.

The sun was just coming up behind the solitary tree that had so
interested him the previous evening, and he noticed that from his
position in the dead-centre of the doorway the sun and the tree were
right in line. Again that curious, humorless smile flickered about the
corners of his mouth. He stood meditating for a minute or so, then, with
an assumption of carelessness that he did not feel, began pacing due
east. He had not taken half a dozen strides before he turned at right
angles to his previous course, and just as nonchalantly continued his
stroll northward. This time he covered about double the distance, then
stopped short and scratched a cross on the ground with the toe of his
boot.

When he returned to the hut Abel Cumshaw was just getting up.

"Hallo, Jack," he greeted Bradby. "Been stirring long?"

"No," said Bradby shortly. Then, perhaps fancying his tone was a little
too abrupt, he continued, "I've just been for a bit of a tour round."

"What do you think of the place?" Cumshaw asked casually. But he did not
look up at his mate; he kept his eyes studiously on the ground.

"Just the sort of place we could make our headquarters," said Bradby,
with an enthusiasm that even the forced restraint of his tone could not
hide.

"I don't think we'll have much need of headquarters once this is over
and done with," Cumshaw hinted.

"Maybe not," Bradby replied.

Cumshaw turned to the plank bed and lifted up the saddle-bags, one in
each hand. "Don't you think we should get rid of these?" he remarked.

"I'd almost forgotten about them," Bradby answered with an assumed
indifference. "Yes, we'll 'tend to them as soon as we've had something
to eat."

"While you're talking about something to eat," Cumshaw told him, putting
the bags down again, "I'd like to remind you that we're right on the
last of the tucker. There's just enough flour for the day."

"I wouldn't worry about that," Bradby said. "There's sure to be plenty
of game about in a thickly-wooded country like this."

Cumshaw nodded and dropped on his knees beside the embers of the
evening's fire. In a few moments he was busy coaxing them into a blaze.
Bradby stood behind him, watching the sweep of his shoulders with
calculating eyes. Once his hand strayed almost unconsciously towards his
revolver, then, with a gesture, half of horror, half of dismay, at the
significance of his action, he twisted on his heel and strode to the
door. He turned then, blocking the light with his figure, so that his
face was just a black expressionless mask.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea," he suggested, "if I looked about for a
likely spot to bury that stuff."

"Go ahead," said Cumshaw coolly, as if it were the most natural


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 8 of 16)