The Oakdale Affair

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Chapter IV

For a long minute the two at the head of the stairs stood in tense silence listening for a repetition of the gruesome sounds from below. The youth was frankly terrified; he made no effort to conceal the fact; but pressed close to his companion, again clutching his arm tightly. Bridge could feel the trembling of the slight figure, the spasmodic gripping of the slender fingers and hear the quick, short, irregular breathing. A sudden impulse to throw a protecting arm about the boy seized him—an impulse which he could not quite fathom, and one to which he could not respond because of the body of the girl he carried.

He bent toward the youth. "There are matches in my coat pocket," he whispered, "—the same pocket in which you found the flash lamp. Strike one and we'll look for a room here where we can lay the girl."

The boy fumbled gropingly in search of the matches. It was evident to the man that it was only with the greatest exertion of will power that he controlled his muscles at all; but at last he succeeded in finding and striking one. At the flare of the light there was a sound from below—a scratching sound and the creaking of boards as beneath a heavy body; then came the clanking of the chain once more, and the bannister against which they leaned shook as though a hand had been laid upon it below them. The youth stifled a shriek and simultaneously the match went out; but not before Bridge had seen in the momentary flare of light a partially open door at the far end of the hall in which they stood.

Beneath them the stairs creaked now and the chain thumped slowly from one to another as it was dragged upward toward them.

"Quick!" called Bridge. "Straight down the hall and into the room at the end." The man was puzzled. He could not have been said to have been actually afraid, and yet the terror of the boy was so intense, so real, that it could scarce but have had its suggestive effect upon the other; and, too, there was an uncanny element of the supernatural in what they had seen and heard in the deserted house—the dead man on the floor below, the inexplicable clanking of a chain by some unseen THING from the depth of the cellar upward toward them; and, to heighten the effect of these, there were the grim stories of unsolved tragedy and crime. All in all Bridge could not have denied that he was glad of the room at the end of the hall with its suggestion of safety in the door which might be closed against the horrors of the hall and the Stygian gloom below stairs.

The Oskaloosa Kid was staggering ahead of him, scarce able to hold his body erect upon his shaking knees—his gait seemed pitifully slow to the unarmed man carrying the unconscious girl and listening to the chain dragging ever nearer and nearer behind; but at last they reached the doorway and passed through it into the room.

"Close the door," directed Bridge as he crossed toward the center of the room to lay his burden upon the floor, but there was no response to his instructions—only a gasp and the sound of a body slumping to the rotting boards. With an exclamation of chagrin the man dropped the girl and swung quickly toward the door. Halfway down the hall he could hear the chain rattling over loose planking, the THING, whatever it might be, was close upon them. Bridge slammed-to the door and with a shoulder against it drew a match from his pocket and lighted it. Although his clothing was soggy with rain he knew that his matches would still be dry, for this pocket and its flap he had ingeniously lined with waterproof material from a discarded slicker he had found—years of tramping having taught him the discomforts of a fireless camp.

In the resultant light the man saw with a quick glance a large room furnished with an old walnut bed, dresser, and commode; two lightless windows opened at the far end toward the road, Bridge assumed; and there was no door other than that against which he leaned. In the last flicker of the match the man scanned the door itself for a lock and, to his relief, discovered a bolt—old and rusty it was, but it still moved in its sleeve. An instant later it was shot—just as the sound of the dragging chain ceased outside. Near the door was the great bed, and this Bridge dragged before it as an additional barricade; then, bearing nothing more from the hallway, he turned his attention to the two unconscious forms upon the floor. Unhesitatingly he went to the boy first though had he questioned himself he could not have told why; for the youth, undoubtedly, had only swooned, while the girl had been the victim of a murderous assault and might even be at the point of death.

What was the appeal to the man in the pseudo Oskaloosa Kid? He had scarce seen the boy's face, yet the terrified figure had aroused within him, strongly, the protective instinct. Doubtless it was the call of youth and weakness which find, always, an answering assurance in the strength of a strong man.

As Bridge groped toward the spot where the boy had fallen his eyes, now become accustomed to the darkness of the room, saw that the youth was sitting up. "Well?" he asked. "Feeling better?"

"Where is it? Oh, God! Where is it?" cried the boy. "It will come in here and kill us as it killed that—that-down stairs."

"It can't get in," Bridge assured him. "I've locked the door and pushed the bed in front of it. Gad! I feel like an old maid looking under the bed for burglars."

From the hall came a sudden clanking of the chain accompanied by a loud pounding upon the bare floor. With a scream the youth leaped to his feet and almost threw himself upon Bridge. His arms were about the man's neck, his face buried in his shoulder.

"Oh, don't—don't let it get me!" he cried.

"Brace up, son," Bridge admonished him. "Didn't I tell you that it can't get in?"

"How do you know it can't get in?" whimpered the youth. "It's the thing that murdered the man down stairs—it's the thing that murdered the Squibbs—right here in this room. It got in to them—what is to prevent its getting in to us. What are doors to such a THING?"

"Come! come! now," Bridge tried to soothe him. "You have a case of nerves. Lie down here on this bed and try to sleep. Nothing shall harm you, and when you wake up it will be morning and you'll laugh at your fears."

"Lie on THAT bed!" The voice was almost a shriek. "That is the bed the Squibbs were murdered in—the old man and his wife. No one would have it, and so it has remained here all these years. I would rather die than touch the thing. Their blood is still upon it."

"I wish," said Bridge a trifle sternly, "that you would try to control yourself a bit. Hysteria won't help us any. Here we are, and we've to make the best of it. Besides we must look after this young woman—she may be dying, and we haven't done a thing to help her."

The boy, evidently shamed, released his hold upon Bridge and moved away. "I am sorry," he said. "I'll try to do better; but, Oh! I was so frightened. You cannot imagine how frightened I was."

"I had imagined," said Bridge, "from what I had heard of him that it would be a rather difficult thing to frighten The Oskaloosa Kid—you have, you know, rather a reputation for fearlessness."

The darkness hid the scarlet flush which mantled The Kid's face. There was a moment's silence as Bridge crossed to where the young woman still lay upon the floor where he had deposited her. Then The Kid spoke. "I'm sorry," he said, "that I made a fool of myself. You have been so brave, and I have not helped at all. I shall do better now."

"Good," said Bridge, and stooped to raise the young woman in his arms and deposit her upon the bed. Then he struck another match and leaned close to examine her. The flare of the sulphur illuminated the room and shot two rectangles of light against the outer blackness where the unglazed windows stared vacantly upon the road beyond, bringing to a sudden halt a little company of muddy and bedraggled men who slipped, cursing, along the slimy way.

Bridge felt the youth close beside him as he bent above the girl upon the bed.

"Is she dead?" the lad whispered.

"No," replied Bridge, "and I doubt if she's badly hurt." His hands ran quickly over her limbs, bending and twisting them gently; be unbuttoned her waist, getting the boy to strike and hold another match while he examined the victim for signs of a bullet wound.

"I can't find a scratch on her," be said at last. "She's suffering from shock alone, as far as I can judge. Say, she's pretty, isn't she?"

The youth drew himself rather stiffly erect. "Her features are rather coarse, I think," he replied. There was a peculiar quality to the tone which caused Bridge to turn a quick look at the boy's face, just as the match flickered and went out. The darkness hid the expression upon Bridge's face, but his conviction that the girl was pretty was unaltered. The light of the match had revealed an oval face surrounded by dark, dishevelled tresses, red, full lips, and large, dark eyes.

Further discussion of the young woman was discouraged by a repetition of the clanking of the chain without. Now it was receding along the hallway toward the stairs and presently, to the infinite relief of The Oskaloosa Kid, the two heard it descending to the lower floor.

"What was it, do you think?" asked the boy, his voice still trembling upon the verge of hysteria.

"I don't know," replied Bridge. "I've never been a believer in ghosts and I'm not now; but I'll admit that it takes a whole lot of—"

He did not finish the sentence for a moan from the bed diverted his attention to the injured girl, toward whom he now turned. As they listened for a repetition of the sound there came another—that of the creaking of the old bed slats as the girl moved upon the mildewed mattress. Dimly, through the darkness, Bridge saw that the victim of the recent murderous assault was attempting to sit up. He moved closer and leaned above her.

"I wouldn't exert myself," he said. "You've just suffered an accident, and it's better that you remain quiet."

"Who are you?" asked the girl, a note of suppressed terror in her voice. "You are not—?"

"I am no one you know," replied Bridge. "My friend and I chanced to be near when you fell from the car—" with that innate refinement which always belied his vocation and his rags Bridge chose not to embarrass the girl by a too intimate knowledge of the thing which had befallen her, preferring to leave to her own volition the making of any explanation she saw fit, or of none—"and we carried you in here out of the storm."

The girl was silent for a moment. "Where is 'here'?" she asked presently. "They drove so fast and it was so dark that I had no idea where we were, though I know that we left the turnpike."

"We are at the old Squibbs place," replied the man. He could see that the girl was running one hand gingerly over her head and face, so that her next question did not surprise him.

"Am I badly wounded?" she asked. "Do you think that I am going to die?" The tremor in her voice was pathetic—it was the voice of a frightened and wondering child. Bridge heard the boy behind him move impulsively forward and saw him kneel on the bed beside the girl.

"You are not badly hurt," volunteered The Oskaloosa Kid. "Bridge couldn't find a mark on you—the bullet must have missed you."

"He was holding me over the edge of the car when he fired." The girl's voice reflected the physical shudder which ran through her frame at the recollection. "Then he threw me out almost simultaneously. I suppose he thought that he could not miss at such close range." For a time she was silent again, sitting stiffly erect. Bridge could feel rather than see wide, tense eyes staring out through the darkness upon scenes, horrible perhaps, that were invisible to him and the Kid.

Suddenly the girl turned and threw herself face downward upon the bed. "O, God!" she moaned. "Father! Father! It will kill you—no one will believe me—they will think that I am bad. I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I've been a silly little fool; but I have never been a bad girl—and—-and—I had nothing to do with that awful thing that happened to-night."

Bridge and the boy realized that she was not talking to them—that for the moment she had lost sight of their presence—she was talking to that father whose heart would be breaking with the breaking of the new day, trying to convince him that his little girl had done no wrong.

Again she sat up, and when she spoke there was no tremor in her voice.

"I may die," she said. "I want to die. I do not see how I can go on living after last night; but if I do die I want my father to know that I had nothing to do with it and that they tried to kill me because I wouldn't promise to keep still. It was the little one who murdered him—the one they called 'Jimmie' and 'The Oskaloosa Kid.' The big one drove the car—his name was 'Terry.' After they killed him I tried to jump out—I had been sitting in front with Terry—and then they dragged me over into the tonneau and later—the Oskaloosa Kid tried to kill me too, and threw me out."

Bridge heard the boy at his side gulp. The girl went on.

"To-morrow you will know about the murder—everyone will know about it; and I will be missed; and there will be people who saw me in the car with them, for someone must have seen me. Oh, I can't face it! I want to die. I will die! I come of a good family. My father is a prominent man. I can't go back and stand the disgrace and see him suffer, as he will suffer, for I was all he had—his only child. I can't bear to tell you my name—you will know it soon enough—but please find some way to let my father know all that I have told you—I swear that it is the truth—by the memory of my dead mother, I swear it!"

Bridge laid a hand upon the girl's shoulder. "If you are telling us the truth," he said, "you have only a silly escapade with strange men upon your conscience. You must not talk of dying now—your duty is to your father. If you take your own life it will be a tacit admission of guilt and will only serve to double the burden of sorrow and ignominy which your father is bound to feel when this thing becomes public, as it certainly must if a murder has been done. The only way in which you can atone for your error is to go back and face the consequences with him—do not throw it all upon him; that would be cowardly."

The girl did not reply; but that the man's words had impressed her seemed evident. For a while each was occupied with his own thoughts; which were presently disturbed by the sound of footsteps upon the floor below—the muffled scraping of many feet followed a moment later by an exclamation and an oath, the words coming distinctly through the loose and splintered flooring.

"Pipe the stiff," exclaimed a voice which The Oskaloosa Kid recognized immediately as that of Soup Face.

"The Kid musta croaked him," said another.

A laugh followed this evidently witty sally.

"The guy probably lamped the swag an' died of heart failure," suggested another.

The men were still laughing when the sound of a clanking chain echoed dismally from the cellar. Instantly silence fell upon the newcomers upon the first floor, followed by a—"Wotinel's that?" Two of the men had approached the staircase and started to ascend it. Slowly the uncanny clanking drew closer to the first floor. The girl on the bed turned toward Bridge.

"What is it?" she gasped.

"We don't know," replied the man. "It followed us up here, or rather it chased us up; and then went down again just before you regained consciousness. I imagine we shall hear some interesting developments from below."

"It's The Sky Pilot and his gang," whispered The Oskaloosa Kid.

"It's The Oskaloosa Kid," came a voice from below.

"But wot was that light upstairs then?" queried another.

"An' wot croaked this guy here?" asked a third. "It wasn't nothin' nice—did you get the expression on his mug an' the red foam on his lips? I tell youse there's something in this house beside human bein's. I know the joint—its hanted—they's spooks in it. Gawd! there it is now," as the clanking rose to the head of the cellar stairs; and those above heard a sudden rush of footsteps as the men broke for the open air—all but the two upon the stairway. They had remained too long and now, their retreat cut off, they scrambled, cursing and screaming, to the second floor.

Along the hallway they rushed to the closed door at the end—the door of the room in which the three listened breathlessly—hurling themselves against it in violent effort to gain admission.

"Who are you and what do you want?" cried Bridge.

"Let us in! Let us in!" screamed two voices. "Fer God's sake let us in. Can't you hear IT? It'll be comin' up here in a minute."

The sound of the dragging chain could be heard at intervals upon the floor below. It seemed to the tense listeners above to pause beside the dead man as though hovering in gloating exultation above its gruesome prey and then it moved again, this time toward the stairway where they all heard it ascending with a creepy slowness which wrought more terribly upon tense nerves than would a sudden rush.

"The mills of the Gods grind slowly," quoted Bridge.

"Oh, don't!" pleaded The Oskaloosa Kid.

"Let us in," screamed the men without. "Fer the luv o' Mike have a heart! Don't leave us out here! IT's comin'! IT's comin'!"

"Oh, let the poor things in," pleaded the girl on the bed. She was, herself, trembling with terror.

"No funny business, now, if I let you in," commanded Bridge.

"On the square," came the quick and earnest reply.

The THING had reached the head of the stairs when Bridge dragged the bed aside and drew the bolt. Instantly two figures hurled themselves into the room but turned immediately to help Bridge resecure the doorway.

Just as it had done before, when Bridge and The Oskaloosa Kid had taken refuge there with the girl, the THING moved down the hallway to the closed door. The dragging chain marked each foot of its advance. If it made other sounds they were drowned by the clanking of the links over the time roughened flooring.

Within the room the five were frozen into utter silence, and beyond the door an equal quiet prevailed for a long minute; then a great force made the door creak and a weird scratching sounded high up upon the old fashioned panelling. Bridge heard a smothered gasp from the boy beside him, followed instantly by a flash of flame and the crack of a small caliber automatic; The Oskaloosa Kid had fired through the door.

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