Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectives
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Time: The month of May. The year, 1859; when the West was new, and the life of the Pioneer difficult and dangerous.
Scene: A tiny belt of timber, not far from the spot where not long before, the Marais des Cygnes massacre awoke the people of south-eastern Kansas, and kindled among them the flames of civil war.
It is a night of storm and darkness. Huge trees are bending their might, and branches, strong or slender, are swaying and snapping under a fierce blast from the northward.
Night has closed in, but the ghostly light of a reluctant camp fire reveals a small group of men gathered about its blaze; and back of them, more in the shelter of the timber, a few wagons, – prairie schooners of the staunchest type – from which, now and then, the anxious countenance of a woman, or the eager, curious face of a child, peers out.
There has been rain, and fierce lightning, and loud-rolling thunder; but the clouds are breaking away, the rain has ceased: only the strong gusts of wind remain to make more restless the wakeful travellers, and rob the weary, nervous ones of their much needed sleep.
“Where’s Pearson?” queries a tall, strong man, who speaks as one having authority. “I have not seen him since the storm began.”
“Pearson?” says another, who is crouching over the flickering fire in the effort to light a stubby pipe. “By ginger! I haven’t thought of the fellow; why, he took his blanket and went up yonder,” indicating the direction by a jerk of the short pipe over a brawny shoulder – “before the storm, you know; said he was going to take a doze up there; he took a fancy to the place when we crossed here before.”
“But he has been down since?”
“Hain’t seen him. Good Lord, you don’t suppose the fellow’s been sleepin’ through all this?”
Parks, the captain of the party, stirs uneasily, and turns his face towards the wagons.
“There’s been some fearful lightnin’, sir,” breaks in another of the group. “‘Tain’t likely a man would sleep through all this, but – ”
He stops to stare after Parks, who, with a swift impulsive movement of the right hand, has turned upon his heel, and is moving toward the wagons.
“Mrs. Krutzer,” he calls, halting beside the one most remote from the camp fire.
“What is wanted?” answers a shrill, feminine voice.
“Is the little one with you?”
“Yes.” This time there is a ring of impatience in the voice.
“Have you seen Pearson since the storm?”
“My gracious! No.”
“How is Krutzer?”
“No better; the storm has doubled him up like a snake. Do you want him?”
“Not if he can’t walk.”
“Well he can’t; not a step.”
“Then good-night, Mrs. Krutzer.” And Parks returns to the men at the fire.
“There’s something wrong,” he says, with quiet gravity.
“Pearson has not been near the child since the storm.Get your lanterns, boys; we will go up the hill.”
It is only a slight elevation, with a pyramid of rocks, one or two wide-spreading trees; and a fringe of lesser growth at the summit.
A moment the lanterns flash about, while the men converse in low tones. Then one of them exclaims:
“Here he is! Pearson; Heavens, man, wake up!”
But the still form outstretched upon the water-soaked blanket, and doubly sheltered by the great rocks and bending branches, moves not in response to his call.
They crowd about him, and Walter Parks bends closer and lets the full light of the lantern he carries, fall upon the still face.
He sinks upon one knee beside the prostrate form; he touches the face, the hands; looks closer yet, and says in a husky voice, as he puts the lantern down:
“He’s dead, boys!”
They cluster about that silent, central figure. One by one they touch it; curiously, reverently, tenderly or timidly, according as their various natures are.
Then a chorus of exclamations, low, fierce, excited.
“How was it?”
“Was he killed?”
“The storm – ”
“More likely, Injuns.”
“No, Bob, it wasn’t Indians,” says Parks mournfully, “for here’s his scalp.”
And he tenderly lays a brown hand upon the abundant locks of his dead comrade, sweeping them back from the forehead with a caressing movement.
Then suddenly, with a sharp exclamation that is almost a shriek, the hand drops to his side; he recoils, he bounds to his feet; then, turning his face to the rocks, he lets the darkness hide the look of unutterable horror that for a moment overspread it, changing at length to an expression of sternness and fixed resolve.
Meantime the others press closer about the dead man, and one of them, taking the place Parks has just vacated, bends down to peer into the still, set face.
“Boys, look!” he cries eagerly; “look here!” and he points to a tiny seared spot just above the left temple. “That’s a burn, and here, just above it, the hair is singed away. It’s lightning, boys.”
Again they peer into the dead face, and utter fresh exclamations of horror. Then Walter Parks, whose emotion they have scarcely noticed, turns toward them and looks closely at the seared spot upon the temple.
“Boys,” he asks, in slow, set tones, “did you, any of you, ever see a man killed by lightning?”
They all stare up at him, and no one answers.
“Because,” he proceeds, after a moment’s silence, “I never saw the effects of a lightning stroke, and don’t feel qualified to judge.”
“It’s lightnin’,” says the man called Bob, in a positive voice; “I’ve never seen a case, but I’ve read of ’em. It’s lightnin’, sure.”
“Of course it is,” breaks in another. “What else can it be? There ain’t an Injun about and besides – ”
A sharp flash of lightning, instantly followed by a loud peal of thunder, interrupts this speech, and, when they can hear his voice, Parks says, quietly:
“I suppose you are right, Menard. Now, let’s take him down to the wagons; quick, the rain is coming again.”
Slowly they move down the hill with their burden, Walter Parks supporting the head and shoulders of the dead. And as they go, one of them says:
“Shall I run ahead and tell the Krutzers?”
“No,” replies Parks, sternly; “we will take him to my wagon. I will inform Mrs. Krutzer.”
So they lay him in the wagon belonging to their leader, and before they leave him there Parks does a strange thing. He takes off the oil-skin cap from his own head and pulls it tight upon the head of the dead man. Then he strides over to the wagon occupied by the Krutzers.
A flickering, sputtering candle, lights up the interior of a large canvas-covered wagon. On a narrow pallet across one side of the vehicle, a man tosses and groans, now and then turning his haggard face, and staring, blood-shot eyes, upon a woman who crouches near him, holding upon her knees a child of two summers, who slumbers peacefully through the storm, with its fair baby face upturned to the flickering candle. In the corner, opposite the woman, lies a boy of perhaps ten years, ragged, unkempt, and fast asleep.
A blaze of lightning and a rush of wind cause the man to cry out nervously, and then to exclaim, peevishly:
“Oh, I wish the morning would come; this is horrible!”
“Hush, Krutzer,” says the woman, in a low, hissing whisper; “you act like a fool.”
She bends forward and lays the sleeping child beside the dirty boy in the corner. Then she lifts her head and listens.
“Hush!” she whispers again; “they are astir outside; I hear them talking. Ah! some one is coming.”
It is the voice of Walter Parks, and this time the woman parts the tent flap and looks out.
“Is that you, Mr. Parks? I thought I heard voices out there. Is the storm doing any damage?”
“Not at present. Is Krutzer awake?”
She glances toward the form upon the pallet; it is shivering as with an ague. Then she says, unhesitatingly:
“Krutzer has been in such misery since this storm came up, that I’ve just given him morphine. He ain’t exactly asleep, but he’s stupid and flighty; get into the wagon, Mr. Parks, and see how he is for yourself. Poor man; this is the fifth day of his rheumatism, and he has not stood on his feet once in that time.”
The visitor hesitates for a moment, then drawing nearer and lowering his tone somewhat, he says:
“If Krutzer is in a bad state now, he had better not know what I have come to tell. Can he hear me as I speak?”
“No; not if you don’t raise your voice.”
“Pearson is dead, Mrs. Krutzer.”
She starts, gasps, and then, with her head protruding from the canvas, asks, huskily:
“How? when? who? – ”
“We found him up by the rocks, lying on his blanket – ”
“How – how?” she almost gasps.
“There is a burn upon his head. Menard says it was a stroke of lightning.”
“Oh,” she sighs, and sinks back in the wagon, turning her head to look at the form upon the pallet.
She leans toward him again and listens mutely.
“We – Menard, Joe Blakesly, and myself – will watch to-night with the body. We know very little about Pearson, and the little one; what can you tell us?”
“Not much;” clasping and unclasping her hands nervously. “It was like this: Pearson joined our train just before we crossed Bear Creek – beyond the reserve, you know. That was three weeks before we left the others, to join your train. The child was ailing at the time, and so Pearson put it in my charge, most of the other women having more children than I to take care of. I liked the little thing, and it did not seem a trouble to me; so after a while Pearson offered to pay me, if I would look after it until we struck God’s country. But I would not let him pay me, for the baby seems like my own.”
“And now, Mrs. Krutzer?”
“I am coming to that. Pearson told us, at the first, that the little girl was not his; that its father was a miner back among the mountains. Its mother was dead, and the father, who was an old friend of Pearson’s, had put it in his care, to be taken to New York, where its relatives live. Pearson was obliged to quit mining, you know, on account of his health.”
“Yes; do you know the address of the child’s friends?”
“Yes; it’s an aunt, her father’s sister. About two weeks ago – I think Pearson must have had a presentiment or something of the kind – he came to me, and gave me a letter and a package, saying that if anything happened to him during the trip, he wanted me to see the little girl safely in the hands of her relatives. The letter was from the baby’s father, and the packet contained the address of the New York people, and enough money to pay my expenses after I leave the wagon train. I promised Pearson that I would take care of the child and put her safe in her aunt’s hands, and so I will – but, Oh, dear! I never expected to be obliged to do it.”
A hollow groan breaks upon her speech; the man upon the pallet is writhing as if in intensest agony. The woman makes a signal of dismissal, and drops the canvas curtain.
Walter Parks hesitates a moment, and then, as a second groan greets his ear, turns and strides away.
The clouds hang overhead like a murky canopy. The wind is sighing itself to sleep. The rain has ceased, but large drops drip dismally from the great branches that lately sheltered Arthur Pearson’s death-bed.
Beside the rocks, three men are standing. It is three o’clock in the morning. Two of the three men bend down to examine something which the third, lighted by a lantern, has just taken from the wet ground at his feet.
It is a small thing to excite so much earnest scrutiny; only the half burned fragment of a lucifer match.
“Boys,” says Walter Parks, solemnly, swinging the lantern upon his arm and carefully wrapping the bit of match in a paper as he speaks, “poor Pearson was never killed by lightning. That sear upon his forehead was made by the simple application of a burning match. I’ve seen men killed by lightning.”
“But you said – ”
“No matter what I said then, Joe; what I now say to you and Menard is the truth. You have promised to keep what I am about to tell you a secret, and to act according to my advice. Menard, Blakesly, Arthur Pearson has been foully murdered!”
“Parks, you are mad!”
“You will believe the evidence of your own senses, boys. I am going to prove what I assert.”
“But who? how? – ”
“Who? – ah, that’s the question! There are ten men of us; if the guilty party belongs to our train, we will ferret him out if possible. If we were to gather all our party here, and show them how poor Pearson met his death, the assassin, if he is among us, would be warned, and perhaps escape.”
“Boys, I believe that the assassin is among us; but I have not the faintest suspicion as to his identity. We are ten men brought together by circumstances. We three have known each other back there in the mining camps. The others are acquaintances of the road; good fellows so far as we know them: but nine of us ten are innocent men; one is a murderer! Come, now, and let me prove what I am saying.”
As men who feel themselves dreaming; silently, slowly, with anxious faces, they follow their leader to the wagon where the dead man lies alone.
“Get into the wagon, boys; here, at this end, and move softly.”
It is done and the three men crouch close together about the body of the dead.
“Hold the lantern, Joe. There, Menard lift his head.”
Silently, wonderingly, they obey him.
Then Walter Parks removes the cap from the lifeless head, and shudderingly parts away the thick hair from about the crown.
“Hold the lantern closer, Joe. Look, both of you; do you see that?”
They bend closer; the lantern’s ray strikes upon something tiny and bright.
“My God!” cries Joe Blakesly, letting the lantern fall and turning away his face.
“Parks, what —what is it?”
“A nail! Touch it, boys; see the hellish cleverness of the crime; think what the criminal must be, to drive that nail home with one blow while poor Pearson lay sleeping, and then to rearrange the thick hair so skillfully. That was before the storm, I feel sure. If we had found him sooner, there might have been no mark upon his forehead. Then we, in our ignorance, would have called it heart disease, and poor Pearson would have had no avenger. After the storm, the cunning villain crept back, struck a match, and applied it to his victim’s temple. And but for an accident, we would all have agreed that he was killed by a lightning-stroke.”
Menard lays the head gently back upon the damp hay and asks, shudderingly:
“How did you discover it, Parks?”
“In examining the sear, you may remember, I brushed the hair away from the temple. As I ran my fingers through it, I touched – that.”
They look from one to the other silently for a moment, and then Joe Blakesly says:
“Has he been robbed?”
“Let us see;” Menard says, “he wore a money-belt, I know. Look for it, Parks.”
Parks examines the body, and shakes his head.
“It’s gone; has been cut away. The belt was worn next the flesh; the print of it is here plainly visible. The belt has been taken, and the clothing replaced!”
“What coolness! what cunning! Shall we ever run the fellow down, Parks?”
“Yes! Boys, you know why I am leaving the mountains. I am going home to England, to be near my father who must die soon. I am not a poor man; I shall some day be richer still. If we fail to find this murderer, I shall put the matter in the hands of the detectives, and I will never give it up. Arthur Pearson met his death while traveling for safety with a party which calls me its leader, and I will be his avenger! It may be in one year, or two, or twenty; it may take a fortune, and a lifetime; but Arthur Pearson shall be avenged!”