- Author: Lee Tarbell
Read book online «Valley of the Croen by Lee Tarbell (funny books to read txt) 📕». Author - Lee Tarbell
[Transcriber's Notes: This etext was produced from Amazing Stories April 1949. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Misspellings have been corrected.]
By LEE TARBELL
There was a mysterious golden statue that always pointed one way—and it led to sudden death in the valley where flying disks landed.
Like a lodestone drawn to a magnet, the tiny golden statue leaped from his hand and darted toward its huge counterpart.
They say cross-eyed men are bad luck. He stood there, in my doorway, eyeing me up and down with those in-focused black eyes.
His face was hideous even if the eyes had been normal. He was slashed with a wide cicatrice of livid scar tissue from one cheekbone across his nose and down to the button of his jaw on the other side.
He was big, and he looked like bad news to me. I inadvertently moved the door as if to close it, then he spoke:
"You Keele, the mining man?"
I nodded, wondering at the mild voice from the huge battered figure.
"Been looking for you. I've run across something I wouldn't tell just anyone. But I've heard of you, that you are on the level. Here in Korea, you're known already."
I still didn't step back and swing the door wide. But he had aroused my curiosity as well as my natural desire to acquire things. I had made two fortunes and lost both in mining ventures. My present not small income came from an emerald mine in the Andes. It had been a very dirty and very sick Indio who had led me to that emerald mine. You never know!
"I'm pretty busy, could you give me some idea...." I hedged. It doesn't do to seem too anxious or eager in any business deal. Too, the sight of his burly figure, even without the nightmare face, was not exactly reassuring. That bulge under the native quilted coat, I knew was nothing but a gun too big for even his bulges to conceal completely. But a man needed a gun, here. Especially if he had something valuable, such as the whereabouts of gold.
He grinned, and the white, even teeth, and the wrinkles around his eyes took away the sense of impending catastrophe brought by those crossed eyes. I stepped back then, and he walked in. I sat down at my desk. He sat down across from me, and fumbled in one pocket. He lay on the desk an object in wrappings of dirty rags. These he peeled off slowly, his eyes seeming to dart here and there, never looking where they should. As he peeled, he talked:
"I just landed off a ship from Fusan, up-coast. Y' ever been in Fusan?"
I shook my head, watching his fingers work at the knots of the strings around his mysterious object.
"Korea is a funny place. As long as people have been living here, you'd think it would be settled. But it isn't! There're immense forests, great mountains, where no man has gone, places no one enters. They're so dumb they don't even have compasses; they get lost! Think my compass is magic, wonder how I know where to go next, and not get lost. Superstitious, scared to go into the great, dark, damp forests. Scared of the mountains no one has ever climbed. That kind of country is a prospector's meat!"
I nodded. He had the wrappings off, and I leaned forward, a little breathless at the beauty of the thing in his hand. A curiously wrought little statuette about eight inches high, of gold. It was set with real emeralds, for eyes. About the neck and waist of the exquisite female figure were inset jewels, simulating girdle and necklace. A little golden woman goddess! It was very finely wrought, and what surprised me, it was not oriental, not any style of art I could place. Yet it was alien and ancient. I reached for it. He let me take it in my hands, and as I touched it, an electric tingle of surprise, a thrill of utter delight, ran up my arm, as if the image contained a strong little soul intent upon enslaving me with admiration.
"Potent little female, isn't she?"
His crossed eyes were on mine with that queer stare of the cross-eyed. I could make nothing of the facial expressions of this man. He would have been disturbing to play poker against. I would have said he was afraid of that little figure! Afraid, yet very much attached to it. I set it down and he wrapped it up again.
"Strange thing! Tell me about it."
"You know we split Korea with Russia, after the war. I thought I'd take a look around. I have done quite a bit of that. It wasn't hard. Up near the Russian line I found something."
He stopped, looked at me. Whether, he was trying to gauge my credulity or my depth, I don't know.
"You're young. You're not yet thirty, Keele; you've got time left to enjoy a fortune such as I'm letting you in on. And I saw such women among these unknown people as no man would believe. I spent a lot of time spying on them."
I figured he was lying about the women to get me to help him finance the trip. But just the same, the hint of unknown and unspoiled beauty of some hidden, weirdly alien tribe of people aroused my curiosity—the old lure of the Savage Princess from kid days, I guess. I hadn't had a real vacation in years—and what would I enjoy more than a jaunt through untouched forests? Toward what didn't matter as long as the hunting was good. And it sounded good!
"Unknown people, virgin forest, beautiful women and plenty of gold. Sounds too good to be true!"
He squinted at me, bared his fine teeth. He leaned forward, almost whispered trying to impress me:
"The people who made that statue are still there. It isn't ancient—they still make them!"
Now I knew he was lying, but still I was hooked. I had to know! For that statue was an infinite evidence of a refinement of art culture rare on earth! If such a race still remained untouched by white man's modern rot—I could pick up a fortune in art objects. I wasn't too dumb to know what they'd bring in New York. I nodded, and he went on.
"I found a cache of valuable gold, jewels, and other things. Things I can't understand. I could be better educated, Mr. Keele. That's why I've come to you. I want some help."
I leaned back. If he found gold, he should have the wherewithal to get in there and back without my help. So he was lying. I determined to find out why, and just what the lie was.
"Go ahead," was all I said. Give a liar enough rope and he'll trip himself.
But he didn't! He didn't ask for money! He only wanted me for advice, for the names of experienced men of the kind he needed, to help him go back there. Men willing to fight if needed. Or else he was too clever. At the end he had me. I was committed to supervising and accompanying that expedition. Or was it the wise emerald eyes of the little golden Goddess that trapped me? I didn't know, then.
Finally I got it out of him. He hadn't brought back the gold. He had to cross bandit territory, and he didn't have to tell me why he didn't carry his fortune with only his own rifle to guard it.
I picked two well-known men who were available just then. Hank Polter had led more than one hunting party through country I wouldn't have picked—and come out safe. He knew what a gun was for, and when to use it. And that's the most important part of handling a gun, knowing when you have to shoot, and then doing it first. The man that shoots before he has to is going to get you into more trouble than he can get you out of.
Lean and tough, he knew the ropes. Around thirty, just under six feet, not bad looking, he was making the most of Seoul's wide-open hot spots. Nearly broke, he jumped at our offer.
Seoul is the capital of Korea, in case you don't know. Everyone did pretty much as they pleased, for there were few restrictions from the so-recently installed government. There are a number of gold mines around Seoul, which was why I was there. Like the cross-eyed Jake Barto, I knew that something would turn up worth owning where governments have changed three times in as many years.
Frans Nolti, the other hunter we hired, was more of a fortune hunter, by appearance, than one who knew his way in the jungles of the world. Handsome in his Italian way, he was suave, apparently well educated, very quick in his movements. He gave the impression of extreme cleverness, of intellect held in reserve behind a facade of worldliness, of light clever talk.
Both of them knew their Orient, far better than I. Which was one reason I wanted them.
Barto had at first wanted a large party, at least a score of "white" men of the western school, able to fight and smart enough to know how. But I had talked him out of it.
"You see, Jake, with two like these, we can travel fast. If there's treachery, if they aren't satisfied with the cut we're offering, why it's two against two—you and I have an even chance. With a larger party, we might pick up some scoundrels who will try to murder us and make off with the treasure. Providing we get the treasure!"
Jake eyed me, in that maddeningly unreadable cross-eyed expression of cold ferocity which the scars gave his ugly face. We had agreed on one-third each, the other two to split the other third between them. I was footing the bills, Jake was nearly broke. He had found the stuff, and tried to hold out for half, me a quarter, the other two to split a quarter. I said nothing doing.
"No, Jake, this first trip, it's got to be this way. If it's like you say it is, there'll be more. What we can carry won't be all the value. There'll be more to be gotten out of that ruin than the stuff you found. You'll have the money to do it, after this, and it's your find. We'll be out, after this one trip."
We sailed up the east coast of Korea from Fusan to the village of Leshin. By native cart from there to the ancient half-ruined city of Musan. That's close to the Manchurian border. There we hired eight diminutive Korean ponies and four men to "go along" as Barto put it, for they didn't want to go, and didn't appear like men of much use for anything but guides. And Barto knew the way. But I didn't want to be wandering around without any native interpreters, without contact of any kind possible with the people we might encounter. None of them had been more than a few miles into the wilderness. They were sad looking men when we started northward. But Koreans manage to look pretty sad much of the time. With their history, that's easy to understand.
Something about the burly, ugly Barto's behavior began to worry me. He didn't know where he was going. He had told a lie, but just what the lie was I couldn't figure out. I watched him covertly. Whenever we came to the end of a march, instead of sighting his landmarks, making sure of his bearings—he would go off by himself. Next day, he would know exactly where he wanted to go—but sometimes the "way" would be across an impassable gorge, a rapids, or straight into a cliff.
One night, the fourth day and well into the wilderness, we were moving up a broad valley through a forest of larch. I sighted a deer, and called a halt while I stalked it. I got it, and came back ahead of the rest, who were cutting up the deer. I moved quietly in the woods—it's a good habit. I came upon Barto, and he was oblivious of me. He had the little golden girl in his hands, talking to it.
"Now, tell me the way, girl, tell me the way." Then he held the girl loosely in his hand, as I watched, it gave me an eerie feeling to see the little figure turn, its outstretched hand pointing northward like a compass. Was Jake Barto a madman? Or