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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXVI

page 242

Chapter XXVI

When Upmore turned away from the door of the dead-house after seeing the exit closed on the storekeeper, instead of following the others he stepped aside into the dining-room, which was almost in darkness. A glance revealed the person of whom he was in search, and he closed the door and turned up the lamp.

Brice, for it was he, grinned and showed his discoloured teeth, but Upmore, gnawing his moustache, apparently did not share in the other's amusement.

"You're a deep un," said Brice, with an admiring chuckle. "What's to do next?"

"That's the point," said Upmore thoughtfully. He crossed the room, then walked softly back on tiptoe, and, opening the door, looked out into the deserted bar. Satisfied that there were no listeners, he allowed the door to remain partly open and placed himself in a position that would command a view of anything occurring outside.

"Look 'ere," said Brice in a whisper, "let's finish Roller and make t'other chap swing for him. We've got fifty witnesses to swear that he slung 'im in there, and who's to say 'e didn't crack 'im on the 'ead before he shut the door?"

"Listen," said Upmore, holding up his finger.

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For a man with a cracked skull the storekeeper indeed was making an extraordinary amount of noise, and Brice at once recognised the futility of his scheme.

"What then?" he asked again.

Upmore was on the point of replying when his eye caught a motion outside and he pointed hurriedly to a recess behind the door. Brice slipped across, and when Hugh and Jess entered there was apparently no one present but the innkeeper. The latter, after following them to the hall, remained in the doorway of the inn until the lantern was a considerable way from the house, then he returned to the dining-room.

"Goin' 'ome, eh?" said Brice, rubbing the side of his nose with a flat forefinger. "He's as slippery as a darned eel. Hanged if 'e 'asn't the luck of a Chinaman."

"The point I was debating," said Upmore, "was whether we couldn't get Roller to take the job off our hands. It might be a job that would suit him very well now."

Brice regarded him with an admiration verging on awe.

"The difficulty," continued Upmore musingly, "is to get the strength of his hand without disclosing ours."

The other became suddenly thoughtful. "What difference would that make to my little commish?" he asked anxiously.

"Eh? None. The thing is—it has got to come off somehow."

"He's that darned slippery," repeated Brice, leaning forward and looking apologetically at the innkeeper—"first there was the little go we 'ad on the gumfield—'e 'ad all the best of that. Then there was the time I dropped in promiscuous like and found 'amilton's page 244kid there—that was a point to 'im too. Then there was a couple o' other times when I reckoned I 'ad the drop on 'im, but 'e dodged me both times."

"Yes," said Upmore, "the thing has been bungled, and the worst of it is he has his suspicions aroused, and that makes it all the harder."

"I'll tell you what," said Brice; "I'll tackle it right off to-night. This time I'll make certain of it."

"How," asked Upmore hopefully.

"I'll kerosene 'im," said Brice, with a malignant grin. "Get me 'alf a tin o' kerosene and a bit o' a pannikin. The tea tree's grown up that thick round the tent that I can get right in be'ind and slop it on without 'im surspectin' nothin'; then——" He struck an imaginary match on his trousers, and a puff of the breath conveyed the rest.

Upmore received the scheme with a show of respect, but he did not discuss it. "Stay here," he said, "or go into the hall if you like, till I have a talk with Roller. The hall will be better, so that if anyone proposes to let him out you can take steps to prevent it. I've got another key upstairs."

He turned down the lamp, and groping his way up the dark, steep stairs, returned presently with the key.

The dead-house was wrapped in complete silence as the innkeeper, bearing a lantern in his hand, rapped on the door with his knuckles.

"Who's there?" asked a hoarse voice.

"Me—Upmore. Is that you, Mr. Roller?"

"Who the devil d'you expect it is?" asked Roller not unnaturally.

"I'm coming in, Mr. Roller; but don't try to get out until I tell you, or it may lead to worse trouble. Do you hear what I say?" page 245"I hear. Come in, and be hanged to you!"

Thus cordially invited, the innkeeper lost no time in turning the key, and slipping in edgeways he closed and locked the door behind him.

"I am in absolute terror of my life with that young man," he said breathlessly, holding up the light to get a good view of his companion. Then his voice changed suddenly to another key. "What's this?" he asked sharply.

The dead-house, as revealed by the light of the lantern, was a place sufficiently gloomy to justify the worst fears of its most imaginative occupant. In shape it was a strongly built lean-to, high at the back, but barely providing standing-room at the front. It was lighted only by a few panes of glass near the ceiling of the bar, and thus the only light that reached it even in daytime was, as it were, second-hand. A rude bench nailed to the wall in one corner provided the only resting-place above the level of the floor, and with this single exception the place was absolutely bare of anything in the nature of furniture or fittings. The walls and floor were in a filthy condition, and the rat-holes in the lining boards sufficiently accounted for the fetid odour with which the room was charged. The bottom panels of the door, as well as the lower lining boards, were everywhere dented and split, as though from the furious kicking of half-maddened drunks, with possibly a percentage from those who, having slept off their debauch, found themselves temporarily forgotten and resented it. It was, however, nothing of all this which arrested the innkeeper's attention and caused him to break off in his conversation with Roller. His eye was attracted by a figure lying huddled together in one corner, its face turned to the wall.

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"Who is it?" he asked, casting his memory back with the possibility of discovering some flotsam from the wrecks of the past few days.

"That brute chucked him in with me," Roller explained, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I expect he's drunk; he tumbled down there as soon as he got in."

The innkeeper tiptoed across and lowered the lantern to the level of the man's face. "It's Bart," he said, touching him with his foot "I expect I'd have had to bring him in here, anyway." He stooped down and shook him violently by the shoulder, eliciting nothing more intelligible than a drunken snore.

"Well," said Roller impatiently, "what are we stopping here for?"

"It's this way, Mr. Roller," said Upmore, rising and looking furtively at the storekeeper; "you haven't given me much reason lately to feel friendly towards you."

"Oh, well," said Roller, "we'll forget all that. I've something else to think of now."

"That's spoken like a gentleman," said Upmore, setting down the lantern and seating himself on the bench. "And I suppose, then, the matter of the guarantee may be considered finally settled?"

"Yes," snarled Roller, "I tell you I am not going to bother any more with it."

"That's satisfactory, anyway," said Upmore easily; "very gentlemanly indeed."

"Confound you!" said Roller, after a pause. "Why don't you open the door?"

"It's this way, Mr. Roller," said the innkeeper, looking around him as though in admiration at the scenery, "that young man's got a down on the pair of us, and I'm thinking what he'd do if I let you out."

Roller contemplated the speaker with savage disgust. page 247"Let me have a fair chance at him face to face," he said, "and we'd see what he'd do."

"He was rather severe on you," Upmore admitted. Then he gave vent to a low cackle. "Very funny you looked, Mr. Roller, if you'll excuse my making the remark."

"Shut your mouth!" said Roller fiercely, moving feverishly up and down the room. "Where is he now?" he stopped suddenly to ask.

"He may be on the road home."

"I'd give something to get my grip on him, drag him in here, and——"

The innkeeper waited for the conclusion of the sentence, but as nothing came he leaned forward and asked suggestively, "Why not? Mind you," he continued cautiously as Roller came to a standstill, "I've got nothing against him myself; he's never given me offence; it is the gentlemanly manner in which you have cried off with me that makes me feel that I would like to help you to—get square with him."

"How can it be done?" asked Roller eagerly, opening and shutting his hands. "I'll get even with him if—if——"

"There's a chap outside," the innkeeper said musingly, "who'd stick a knife into him if he had the chance, he's got that much of a down on him. Not, of course," he broke off, changing his insinuating tone in response to some fancied shrinking on the part of his victim, "that you'd go as far as that, except, maybe, by accident, but still, if you got him to help you, you could mark him a bit or even bring him back and give him a day or two of this."

"Who is he?" asked Roller.

"Brice is his name.—Yes, but all that is forgotten. I page 248was talking to him not ten minutes ago, and one of the things he said to me was, 'Mr. Upmore,' he said, 'I used ter 'ave a down on Roller, but now hang me if after this I ain't on his side'—those were his very words."

The storekeeper continued to pace doubtfully up and down the floor.

"I don't care to put myself in the power of a man of that stamp," he said, gnawing his finger.

"Very well," said Upmore indifferently, "it was merely a suggestion. Perhaps it will be better to leave him alone. A man who can cut you out in a love affair and throw you into a place like this is rather a dangerous customer to tackle."

Roller started and glared savagely at the innkeeper. "Where is this man?" he asked.

"I'll arrange it all for you," said Upmore, rising. "Just sit down a minute while I find him and get your horse ready."

Leaving Roller seated on the bench, Upmore let himself out and made swiftly for the hall.

The festivities here still continued, but not more than twenty or thirty men remained at the tables. The remainder had either wandered out and forgotten to return, or were lying asleep round the walls of the room. Brice had placed a chair on the centre table, and was sitting there with a whisky bottle grasped between his knees. His speech was slightly thick.

"Come down from there," said Upmore sharply, "and give me the key."

"I'm a-comin' down," said Brice, suiting the action to the word.

The innkeeper led the way into the bar and looked him up and down with an expression that cowed the page 249half-intoxicated ruffian. "Do you know what you are about?" he asked,

"In course," said Brice half sulkily.

"Well, get along the road and wait till Roller comes up. Finish the job this time, or——" A look of cruel significance completed the sentence.

"Give us a bottle o' soda," said Brice, his spirits thoroughly dashed.

Upmore stepped into the bar, uncorked a bottle, and poured the contents into a tumbler. "Now," he said, when the stuff was consumed, "keep out of everyone's sight and wait for him on the brow of the hill."

Brice nodded, and pulling his hat down over his ears, lurched heavily out into the night.

After a moment the innkeeper made his way to the stables, brought out and saddled Roller's horse, and led it round to the verandah; then he stood awhile in deep thought. At last he roused himself, and again entering the hall approached the centre table, scanning the faces of those around it as he advanced.

"I am going to let Roller out, boys," he said, "and I should like one or two of you to come and see it done, so as to be on the safe side. Mr. Armitage, would you mind stepping out on to the verandah? And perhaps his lordship would also oblige? There is no need to let him see you, but in case of accidents I should like one or two witnesses to the fact that he left here safe and well."

Curious as was the request, it was made in such matter-of-fact tones that the men in their muddled condition accepted it as perfectly natural, and two or three accompanied the innkeeper to the verandah, and allowed themselves to be placed in a dark spot, out of reach of the light from the doorway.

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These arrangements completed, Upmore returned to the dead-house.

"It's all right," he said in response to an impatient ejaculation from Roller; "your horse is ready. I have put a rope on the saddle in case you should need it. You will find Brice waiting for you on the top of the hill."

"Is there anyone about?" Roller asked.

"Not a soul; they're all busy inside. Come along." He flashed the light in Bart's face, who lay with his mouth wide open snoring loudly, and, turning, led the way out.

Roller passed quickly through the house and scrambled on to his horse.

"Good night, Mr. Roller," said the innkeeper clearly.

Roller muttered some response, and wheeling his horse, galloped away up the road.

"Where's he going?" asked Armitage, coming forward with the others.

Upmore, in the dim light of the bar, appeared dumb-foundered and looked questioningly from one to the other. "I thought he was going home," he said. "What can he be going to do along there?"

Armitage had a muddled idea that something was wrong, but could form no connected idea of what it was. The Earl of Baringbroke had attended merely out of good-nature and was anxious only to get back to his seat, standing erect being a position attended with some difficulty.

Roller pulled up on the brow of the hill and, looking round, was startled to discover Brice almost immediately at his elbow.

"That you, guv'nor?" asked Brice, laying hold of the stirrup-iron.

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Roller dismounted, and they stumbled along the dusty road side by side, the storekeeper leading the horse.

"What do you suggest?" the latter asked presently, coming to a standstill.

"Shove a knife into 'im," said Brice; "it's quick and easy.

'There was a lady fairly fair,

"Pst!" hissed the storekeeper. "Are you drunk, or what?"

"Take it at 'what,'" said Brice, lurching up against him. "Do you expect a man to be dead sober for ever?

'She went to take the early air,
And she had jewels rarely rare.'"

"If you want all the country to know where we are, you couldn't do better than you are doing," Roller remarked savagely.

"Mum's the word," said Brice. "I took 'alf a bottle to wunst, and it caught me on the sudden. What's your idea of it?" he asked in a hoarse whisper. "Somethin' lingerin', eh?"

"No knives," said Roller. "I want him in my power, bound hand and foot, then we'll see."

"Pretty large order that," said Brice. "He's as slithery as a flounder and strong as a lion. Did you ever feel the weight of his fist?"

"Never," replied the storekeeper, writhing.

"Well, you're likely to," said Brice. "I shouldn't be surprised if 'e broke your neck before the night's out.

'She met young Fairleigh Falifax,
And he was fairly fou—'

Beg pardon, guv'nor, mum's the word."

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The red distorted remnant of a moon was coming up over the shoulder of a neighbouring ridge as the pair came in sight of the tent and halted among the tea trees on the margin of the road.

"Tie up the horse," said Brice, who in the imminence of action appeared to be sober. "Are you right? Then keep low and take care where you are going."

Stooping into the cover of the bushes, the pair crept stealthily forward to within touch of the back wall of the tent. Brice put back a hand to stay the other's advance, and crouched, still listening intently; then he began backing cautiously out till they reached a track some distance away.

"Slithery as a darned eel," he remarked in a whisper. "I don't believe 'e's there at all."

"We'd better make sure," Roller suggested.

"Come on, then," said his companion, and they crept round to the front of the tent, Brice finally crawling in under the fly. After a moment he stood erect "Sold again," he observed in a low voice from within the tent.

Roller followed, and by the aid of a match looked contemptuously round on the possessions of the man who had dispossessed him. Their very slenderness increased his desire for vengeance. "What next?" he asked impatiently.

"Name the game," said Brice, snuffing out the match with his fingers and stepping out into the open air.

"Where does this man Olive live? "Roller asked.

"Up the hill," said Brice. "Come along." He thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and set off through the scrub. Roller untied the horse, and led it across the road, and for some distance through the tea tree, until the track they had started on became too overgrown to follow further, when he came to a standstill.

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"Hurry up, guv'nor," said Brice; "we'll have the daylight on us directly."

The storekeeper secured the horse to the bushes, and they continued their advance until the fern-log cabin of the King of the Diggers loomed out against the sky above them.

"This is another pair of shoes, you know," said Brice, stopping and scratching his ear. "If 'e's 'ere, there's two of them, and they've got a door. The best plan 'ud be to fire the shop, and shoot 'em as they come out."

Roller drew back at the cold-blooded suggestion. "I want one man," he said, "and I want him alive. Help me to that, and I'll pay you well for it."

"Blest if I see 'ow it's to be done," said Brice, after a moment's reflection. "You can't cop a man like that same's a skylark; you've got to wing 'im first."

They crept up to the flat land on which the cabin stood, and after reconnoitring around it, drew off to discuss the situation.

"Man to man's no game at all," said Brice; "we want 'alf a dozen for a job like this. They're no spring chickens either of them."

"I have brought the rope," Roller said. "I was wondering whether we could put it across the doorway, so that the first man who came out would trip over it."

Brice grinned audibly. "Clifford would be the first all right," he said, "and if 'e goes down I could manage 'im—always supposin' 'e's inside. As for t'other bloke, you'd 'ave to stand by to plug 'im in the eye as soon as he turned up."

Roller nodded. They discussed the details, and then returned to the door.

In a few minutes the trap was laid.