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Authors: Neil M. Gunn

The Shadow (20 page)

BOOK: The Shadow
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“Sorry about that.” Ranald's tone was still casual if now rather coolly amused. “I had wanted to have a few words with you.”

Adam's head shot round.

“I am staying,” said Ranald, “at Greenbank with Mrs. Robertson.” His eyes considered Adam's expression. “I perceive you guessed as much.”

“What the hell do you want?”

“Not much,” replied Ranald. “But I had hoped we might discuss it reasonably.”

“What?”

“Miss Gordon's condition is such that Mrs. Robertson and I thought it might help if we got
your
version of what actually did happen when you and Miss Gordon found the body.”

“You do, do you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, to hell with you! I hope that's clear?”

“Quite. Perhaps, then, you wouldn't mind telling me what happened
just before
you found the body?”

Adam's brown eyes concentrated to gleam-points. It was the restraint of one flaming mad.

“I ask,” continued Ranald, watching the face as though its change of expression would tell him what otherwise he need not hope to find out, “because Miss Gordon, in her heightened mental condition, may possibly exaggerate what actually did occur. We are prepared to make allowances.”

Adam's features constricted further, the jaw stiffening, shooting forward slightly, so that the mouth pursed and the whole expression gathered a rigid intensity.

Ranald studied the face. “She might even,” he continued, “exaggerate an amusing love passage into something like rape.”

“You bastard!” The words, flat and fierce, spat at him.

Ranald studied the face even more thoughtfully.

Palette and brush hit the ground and Adam stood before him. “Get out!” Ranald did not move. “Get out, damn you!” Adam's fist smashed into Ranald's jaw.

At the first movement of Adam's shoulder, Ranald's head had begun to duck, but the blow was sufficiently explosive to send him staggering back three yards. There he stood, looking at Adam. “I thought you were that kind of sod,” said Ranald levelly, his eyes never moving from Adam's face. Then he began slowly moving in.

Adam yelled at him again to get the hell out of this and drove at his face, but the face dodged successfully this time and Adam staggered back from a full punch over the heart. Ranald followed him, not swiftly, but with the movement of one who would kill at his leisure, who knew he could kill at his leisure, but needed first to dominate the mind in front of him, to frighten it into gibbering bits.

Adam's mouth had opened, he was bent slightly from the punch and weakened, but his eyes were on fire, his expression that of the fighting wild thing which is not beaten until its last wriggle is stamped on. An excitement came into Ranald's face, whitening it.

It was a primitive scrambling fight, with Adam, after the first wild rushes, ready to use his knees, his feet, any weapon he could lay hands on, for it had become unmistakably clear that as a boxer Ranald completely dominated him. But Adam was nimble, extraordinarily nimble on his feet. When, after dodging a tree, he received a body punch that sent him spinning, he was not only instantly up again but had a piece of dead branch in his fist, was out in the open once more, with Ranald following up, watchful of the stick but forcing Adam towards the river, shepherding him towards the ledge. As Ranald stumbled over a shallow outcrop of rock the thrown stick went slashing across his face. Words now came from them thick with abnormal hatred. Blood began to blind Ranald's right eye. Yet when he got in a blow that felled Adam he waited for Adam to get up. Adam was not deceived. “You bloody swine!” he gasped, for he saw that Ranald wanted to break him, to make him whine before finishing him off.

But they could not keep up the pace, and presently, when Ranald had Adam with his back to the ledge, Adam made no effort to sidestep. Leaning forward slightly, he waited, his eyes wary as a stoat's, his panting mouth still spitting oaths. When Ranald moved to go in, Adam threw himself flat in a leg tackle and, as he brought Ranald down, tried at the same time, in the same motion, to heave him from off his back over the ledge. He very nearly succeeded, but Ranald just managed a grip on the legs. There was a fierce roll and scramble for a few seconds; then Ranald got the full thrust of a knee between the pit of his stomach and two short ribs which had been fractured in an air crash. The intense pain blinded him, loosened his hold, and Adam, breaking away, got to his knees, to his feet, stepped back a pace—and disappeared over the ledge with an expression of fantastic astonishment, his arms thrown up, his fingers wide.

Ranald lay doubled up and slowly writhing. As the stinging agony ebbed, he got on hands and knees and looked over the ledge. The dark pool boiled and swirled and then ran smoothly out of its narrow tail on the far side, got broken up by some boulders, widened and grew shallow in a short run. There was no sign of Adam McAlpine. Ranald got onto his seat and leaned forward to ease the pain, waiting for the sucking swirls and eddies to throw up the body or empty it down the tail of the pool. The pool was deep; in its depths would be continuous circling currents, hidden ledges. The body might never come up.

Ranald got carefully to his feet and straightened himself. His hands were streaked with the blood he had wiped from his eye. He could not see the whole of the pool because of this overhanging ledge which, down from where he stood, curved irregularly for a short distance with birches growing to its edge. He moved up towards the falls so that he might thus get a view under the ledge right to the foot of the pool on his own side. But he found he could not quite get a total view, though he could see the base of the rock which Adam had gone over and what he thought for a moment was a white handkerchief caught between two stones beyond the bottom of the pool and about a yard up from the water's edge, close in on his own side. It was clearly not a handkerchief, however, but an old piece of paper.

There was now a need upon him to search every corner and satisfy himself. He looked at the pool once more, saw the outward swirl from the rock that would have drawn the sinking body inevitably back towards the central downthrust from the falls, then walked along the ledge, in among the birches, and, still not completely satisfied after peering over, came out onto the path, intending to go down its short dip and walk in on the pool from below. But already a realisation of his position, a certain wariness, was in the movement of his body, and as he instinctively glanced down the long gorge he saw two men with fishing rods coming up. He saw them only for a second or two where the path curved outward above the river, then lost them in the trees. They were perhaps two hundred yards away. Ranald did not hesitate. He left the path, climbing up through the birches at a slant, away from the pool, back towards the moor. But soon he was completely blown, his heart knocking, and threw himself on his face.

The fight had certainly taken him right out of himself! He hadn't, he reckoned, enjoyed anything so much for years. God, how people indulged themselves by letting their emotions rip!

It was the measure of him, the sod, with his animal teeth and feet, his bloody knee! He extended the muscles of his stomach trying to ease the pain, which was now dull, not sharp, so perhaps the ribs hadn't gone. All the time he was listening, with a wariness in the eye, in the pallor of his face, the sharp criminal look of one who knew exactly what had happened—and would happen, if any kind of evidence should point towards him. The anglers should be at the falls by now—if they hadn't stopped to fish a pool on the way up. They might remain in the gully all day, fishing the deep pools with bait or minnow, hoping for the big trout, the cannibal monsters. They might hook something big enough to surprise them!

His brain now became extremely cunning and lucid. The painted picture would be found intact and he knew a sudden intimate satisfaction in having resisted the impulse to kick the wooden legs from under it as he had followed the nimble Adam. A lucky break! With no wreckage, no evidence of struggle, Adam must simply have fallen over. Not to mention the darker suspicion that would inevitably enter the human mind—of suicide. The whole affair couldn't have been arranged better had he deliberately framed it! Short of actually having been seen, he couldn't conceivably be connected with the event. He hadn't even met the fellow!

He glanced at his watch. It was time he was getting back, for if he weren't late for lunch, everything would be completely normal. There was this blood on his hands. And on his face, too; he could feel the sticky crust. Before he left the trees, went into the open, he must wash. He looked at his watch again and decided to give himself half an hour before he risked an approach to the burn.

He lay on his back, staring up through the small leafy trees. The high sky was hazed with cloud. Presently a warbler was overhead, amongst the leaves; visible now; song notes fell on him. Bird notes all along the wood; not songs but a few odd notes, now here, now there. Distance gave them a curious echoing quality. He thought of spring woods and Nan. This
was
Nan. He stirred restlessly; dammit, it was time he was out of this. But he forced himself to lie still. He would leave the farm to-morrow morning. A vague thought about his return ticket put his hand to his breast pocket. It was flat—empty. His pocketbook was gone.

He sat up with flashing eyes. If they found his pocket-book! His hands went over all his pockets, even those in his waistcoat; they were beginning to tremble. His anger, as he swore, gave a vicious twist to his features.

The spasm passed and he began to worm his way down through the trees. He hit the path above the falls and, after careful spying, slid down to a screening clump of salleys by the burnside. There he washed his hands and with every care douched his face. But he started a trickle of blood again. It took him five minutes to stop it, but by that time he had his complete explanation of a fall, for he realised that whatever happened here now, he would in any case require an excuse for Greenbank. The reflection of his face in the water made that clear. After spying and listening, he slipped up the hillside, then moved along it, until he was above the falls pool. The first thing he noticed was that the picture was gone.

He lay flat, watchful, trying to think this out. Anglers wouldn't have stolen a picture. That was quite certain. They would have removed it only if they had found the body. Nor would Adam have come miraculously up out of the pool and borne it away, not in his sodden condition! On hands and knees, Ranald moved along the hillside until he had commanded two more pools. There was no sight of the anglers, no human movement of any kind; he went back on his feet until he overlooked the falls pool once more. But now he was afraid to go down. The level ground to the ledge was flat-open like a trap whose jaws would spring if he stepped on it. In a blinding moment he realised the hell of a hole he had landed himself in. Actually he hadn't pushed Adam over, but who on earth would believe that now, with the evidence of the pocket-book containing his personal card not to mention a bloody and bruised face? And he had been looking for Adam—as the policeman of Elver could testify. Not to speak of the girl in the case!

The nausea he had experienced when the knee got him in the stomach came back; but he did not give way to it; his lips thinned against his teeth. To hell with them! To hell with that bloody trap too! He snaked his way down and did not go openly onto the bare ledge but slid noiselessly across the path and in among the trees above the tail of the pool. He leaned over the ledge to make sure nobody was squatting down below. There was no-one, but suddenly he realised that something was missing, and in a moment remembered the piece of old white paper. It was gone. So the anglers had been there.

This knit him together finally. He stood quite still, turning his head slowly. He felt no real pain now. The remorseless mood was on him again; it went down into his hands. He thought not of flight but of what might be met—or overtaken—and destroyed. To be trapped like a rat—over that sod! He moved to the edge of the trees and stood, his eyes flashing swiftly about the bare ground they had fought over. Then they stopped in a concentrated stare. The brown leather pocket-book was lying by the slight outcrop of weathered rock which he had tripped over before getting the stick in the face. He raised his eyes from the pocket-book and looked about him, lips apart, hardly breathing. Then he walked calmly forward, lifted the pocketbook, opened it for a reassuring glance, put it in his pocket, moved up onto the path, left the path, began climbing, quickened his pace, tore upwards, his breathing thick with gusts of laughter, of relief and triumph.

10

He was half an hour late for lunch and opened the door upon Aunt Phemie, who had just sat down to table, and—what was this?—Nan “Hullo, Nan!” he said with a surprise, a warmth, in his voice and manner which so completely overcame Aunt Phemie that she could not take her eyes from the blood clots on his face. He seemed changed, to have come surprisingly alive.

“Ranald!” breathed Nan, also staring at his face.

“Oh, this!” He touched his brow. “That's what's kept me.” He was amused, swayed, gave a short laugh. “I came one cropper up in that pine wood of yours and the branch of the tree got me right across. Doesn't it look pretty?”

Aunt Phemie got up. “Dear me! What on earth were you doing?”

“I thought I'd climb a tree. Ancestral impulse.”

“Reach down that box,” said Aunt Phemie, pointing to the high shelf as she turned to the hot tap. Ranald brought the box to the kitchen sink and Aunt Phemie, after tearing off a strip of bandage, soaked it with disinfectant and began dabbing the clots.

“Ooh! that bites,” said Ranald, screwing up his face.

“That's what it's meant to do.” The nearness of his face with a lost boyishness coming through, so affected Aunt Phemie that her features concentrated and she wiped away smoothly the blood traces below the clots.

BOOK: The Shadow
2.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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