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Title: Chains of the Living Dead Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304441h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2013 Most recent update: July 2016 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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What uncanny devil's crew roamed the bleak slopes of Superstition Mountain, clanking heavy chains? Was it madness that sent Laura Standish racing through the haunted night, begging for aid which no living man dared give her?
LAURA STANDISH blurted out her husband's name before she was fully awake. "Frank!" But there was no answer. Even before she realized just what it was that had awakened her, a chill, little quiver of dread brushed her spine.
The fire on the hearth, before which she had fallen asleep, was low and there was no other light in the huge, dark-ceilinged parlor. Good Lord! It was already night and Frank wasn't back yet! He was to have been gone only an hour, ample time to go down the hill to the General Store in the village and get some food for supper. She had been too tired after their long trip from the city to go with him, and he had seemed worried about leaving her here alone. Something must have...
A sound at the door brought Laura startled to her feet. He was here at last! Returning circulation needled her cramped legs so that she could not move. Frank had a key, but...
The rasp of flesh against wood, out there in the gloomy foyer, was somehow furtive. Heat beat out from the glowing logs in the fireplace, yet Laura shivered with queasy cold. Suddenly she knew it was the very stealthiness of that groping hand—the menace implicit in its quietness—that had awakened her. And suddenly, she knew also that she was afraid.
Someone was trying to get in! And it was not Frank! For a moment, panic swept over her, and she cowered back against the fireplace, so close that the hem of her dress began to scorch. She was alone in this musty, old country house, and the deep pine woods separated her by a good mile from the village. From any ordinary prowler, she was comparatively safe. Frank had insisted on making sure, before he went, that all windows were safely locked. He had made her promise to shoot home the two heavy bolts on the big, front door.
But there was something eerie about the way whatever it was outside fumbled at the barrier, a strange quality of blindness, of mindlessness. If only Frank was here, with his capable shoulders and easy confident smile! But he was gone, had been, for hours. Overwhelming dread seized Laura Standish as she listened to the aimless groping, the queer slithering sounds, along the stout pine of the door.
Had the Thing outside caught Frank unawares as he was hurrying back to her? Was his dear body even now a cold and mutilated corpse somewhere in the depths of the woods? Did the intruder know that she was alone, a helpless, unprotected, lovely morsel?
She fought herself back to a semblance of sanity. She must not think such thoughts! She forced her trembling voice into just the right mold of casual inquiry. Perhaps, if the prowler knew she were not afraid, if he thought there were others with her in the house...
"Who is there?" she called.
Still there was no answer. The latch! Oh God, the latch! It was rising in its cradle, slowly, with infinite stealth. She stared at its inexorable movement with eyes that were frozen with terror. A new sound came—a snuffling, whining eagerness. It held no human quality in its muffled breathing; it was more like the whimper of an animal to whom human doors are insoluble puzzles.
Laura exhaled slowly. She had forgotten; the bolts in their sockets would hold. The Thing outside seemed to realize that too. The whimper became an angry snarl that pierced the double thickness of the porch. Then silence reigned for an instant, silence during which Laura, still backed against the fire, felt the blood pound madly in her veins. Had the snuffling monster given up the attempt, gone away to its lair?
CR-R-RASH! The heavy door quivered and bent inward. The stout iron bolts strained against their sockets. A screw started from its spiral bed, and sawdust fell in a tiny cloud to the floor.
Smash! Crack! Crash!
Again and again came the terrific thumps. The great, pine door groaned and sagged under the impact of the repeated blows. Each thud was a sledgehammer smashing home against Laura's skull. She could not move, she could not breathe in her terror. No human being could break down that heavy, reinforced barrier. Slam! Her stiffened lips worked soundlessly. A screw, inches long, clattered to the floor. One iron socket dangled uselessly on the precarious thread of a single fastening.
A choked scream tore at her throat "Help! Frank! Help!" she cried in an agony of fear. Then dreadful realization clamored in her brain, sagged her limbs to a feral crouch. Frank, her husband, could not hear. Perhaps never again would he?!
She glared around with mounting madness. There was no hope, no escape for her. It was a small, summer cabin they had rented for the season, intent only on primitive seclusion and the cozy warmth of the two together alone. The ground floor was all one room—a timbered parlor with a gigantic native-stone fireplace for its kitchen. Overhead were two bedrooms, now empty and forlorn. There was no rear door through which she could flee, and her fingers twisting frantically at the window latches would bring the mysterious attacker down upon her.
Thick, ominous silence succeeded the smash of a heavy body against a weakening portal. The Thing had heard her cry for help, was waiting stealthily, flesh flattened against the rough pine. She could hear the slobbering wheeze of its breath, the whimpering sound in its throat.
Oh God! What dreadful monster was crouching out there, waiting for her to cry out again, resting before the final attempt that would bring the door and hinges and all crashing to the ground?
In the very extremity of her fear, Laura found new strength. She must see what it was that had come out of the night, that sought terrible entrance into the lonely cabin. She must see—before it was too late. Her limbs were no longer part of her. They moved her away from the dull-red embers of the hearth, across a long, interminable expanse of flooring, where the shadows ebbed and flowed with each flicker of the dying flames, toward the thick-curtained window that gave on the porch. One dreadful thought swelled and swelled inside her skull until the thin bone ached and reeled under its impact.
Why was the attacker slamming with unhuman strength against the door; why had he not forced an easier entrance through a window?
She shrank desperately from the sinister implications of that thought; she spewed it out like an unclean thing. Outside, the whimper grew to an eager, slavering whine. It had heard her slow, tortured progress across the floor. It was waiting for her to open the door!
The thought rocked her consciousness, made her senses reel and swim. She tore at the heavy stuff of the curtain with terror-strong hands. It swung back to disclose a long, narrow panel of corpse-white luminance. A cold, dead moon struggled to pierce the dense, black shadows of the pines, the taller gloom of the hemlocks. A little beyond, where the old lumber road bent in an arc past the house, the victorious beams bunched in an irregular patch of leprous white.
But Laura saw only the crouching Thing on the porch. It was flattened against the tottering door as if it were listening, waiting. A slanting dart of moonlight spread shudderingly over its massive frame, bathed it in an eerie glow that paralyzed her limbs, exploded red horror in her brain.
And as if it had heard the moan that tore involuntarily from her pallid lips, the monster sprang away from the door, turned its head.
For one, long, terrible moment their eyes met, locked. Dear God, it was a man! But a man such as Laura had never seen before. No light of human reason showed in those glaring eyeballs, or softened the bestial madness of that ape-like face. Yellow froth dripped from the corners of the slobbering mouth, and the thick spume gurgled audibly in the throat. Worn, tattered pants and an even more tattered shirt of indistinguishable hue covered the barrel-thickness of the body. Long, hairy arms dangled almost to the ground.
Laura tried to shrink back, but could not. Her hand gripped the curtain as if glued. Her muscles were beyond control. She knew now that the man outside was mad; stark, irretrievably mad. Prayers, pleas for mercy, could not penetrate that distorted brain. She was beyond all help, all human aid.
The madman whirled on bare, misshapen feet like a cat. His right hand, hidden in the shadows, swung into view. Great God in Heaven! The moon glinted with unholy glee on a broad band of greyish metal that encircled his powerful wrist, and sprayed in a shower of frozen light on the chain that dangled therefrom. The last link showed jagged, broken edges of metal where it had been snapped in two.
Laura felt herself fainting, yet she did not fall. She tried to tear her hand away from the revealing curtain, to run madly, anywhere, away from that awful sight. But a nightmare paralysis held her in icy embrace. The madman had been chained, like a wild beast, like a slave! He had broken away with superhuman strength to roam the wild woods, to find her, a hapless victim for his maniacal will!
The creature thrust his manacled hand toward the window in a strange gesture. The links rattled hideously. He opened his thick lips and a curious whimpering, like that of a beaten dog, spewed from his mouth. As if—almost as if he were imploring her to open the door, to let him in.
Terror flared in Laura's eyes. She dared not, she must not. It was the cunning born of a diseased mind, luring her to destruction. The maniac seemed to sense her loathing, to read her great fear aright. A change came over his bestial face. His lips snarled back to show yellowed teeth; he lunged against the already battered portal. There was a great rending sound. The loosened bolt flew with a doomful thud to the floor. Only one shaky bolt remained between her and his raging lust.
He heaved back again, shoulder arched for the final blow. Laura came to desperate life. Little sobs whimpered in her throat, cataracts of ceaseless blood made turbulent noise in her ears. Her unlocked fingers flew to the catch on the window, tugged frantically at its rusty iron. If only she could twist the stubborn metal, swing up the window in one swift heave, and catapult her slender body through the opening just as the madman rushed in the door, perhaps...
The maniac hunched forward, heedless of her puny efforts. His darkened mind could not associate the window with entrance or exit. In seconds, he would be through, upon her shrinking body. And still the window catch, imbedded with all of Frank's lean strength, refused to give. With sudden, awful clarity she knew it would not open.
The flame of hideous triumph glowed on the madman's brute face. His shoulder bent against the portal. It tottered, split. The night air swirled through the crack with beating wings. Laura shrieked, and lifted her small white fist to smash out the pane of glass.
Clank! Thud—thud! Clank!
Wild hope swept like a consuming blaze through Laura's shaking form. She was saved! That thudding noise was from the old lumber road. It was the sound of many men, slogging along through the rutted dirt. She would shout, she would shriek, she would pour all her desperate terror into one last cry. They would come running, those unseen, blessed men; they would rescue her from this obscene Thing outside. Perhaps even—her bursting heart bounded even more madly than before—Frank was with them, hurrying them back to save his Laura.
See, already the monster had heard, was afraid! He whirled away from the sagging, half-open door. He darted back into the shadows, a crouched, dim-seen animal. Whimpers of fear rumbled in his hairy throat.
Fierce joy surged through her veins. She thrust back the heavy shrouded curtain. She raised her clenched fist to slam against the glass; she opened her mouth to cry for help.
But the cry choked back in her throat with a sudden tautness of muscles; her hand fell like a leaden weight to her side. A horrible thought had seared her brain and clogged her veins with ice. Clank! Clank! Much louder now, nearer, coming down the mountain. Clank! Clank! Beating out a steady, slogging rhythm, a strange, Satanic music. One—two—one—two! March, march. Clash of metal on metal. One foot up; other foot down! Clank—clank!
Laura caught at the window sill to keep from falling. Her scalp was a squeezing cap of horror; her lungs fought for breath. She knew now what caused that eerie sound. It was the chains of manacled men, marching Things coming down the mountain after her. Coming to help their fellow monster, coming to cut off all hope of her escape!
On and on they came, still invisible, still shrouded by the dark-massed pines, chains clanking, metal ringing in horrible unison. The madman in the shadows stirred, whined, and was gone into the night like a ghost called back to its grave. But she knew why he went. He was joining that hideous Tout of his fellows, summoning them with slobbering whimpers to the attack.
She stood at the window like immovable stone, left hand still frozen to the curtain hem. Her brain shrieked madly: "Run, while there is yet time. Out the door, into the woods, anywhere before they come for you!" But her muscles were tight knots of flesh, and her skin, a leaded coffin.
Now it was too late. The ominous clank of the chains burst upon her frozen senses with a wild, triumphant chant. Out there, where the road bent in an arc, and the moonlight lay in a splotch of scabby, leprous white on the grey dirt, a figure moved. For one moment it stopped and lifted its head, laved in the cold, dead spotlight of Hell's own theater.
Great God in Heaven! The face that turned toward the house, as if it saw her fear-rigid at the window, was the face similar to that of the madman who had just slunk away from her porch. The glare was gone from this one's eyes, the snarl from his flabby lips. His huge, knotted shoulders bowed forward in abject servitude, as if crushed under unutterable weights. The links of the manacle encircling his wrist stretched back into the blackness from which he had stepped. A new band of metal enclosed the thickness of his ankle.
For a moment he hesitated, brutish face vacant with the quenched embers of madness. Then, a strange hissing sound from the rear, and he jerked forward his head, hunched shoulders, and stepped into the blackness of eternity.
Clank—thud—clank! Laura's heart was pounding so she had not sensed the momentary cessation of that Devil's march. The dual chains writhed across the dead white patch of moon like disembodied serpents, endless, gleaming with unholy luster. All her faculties were concentrated on that small spot of light. What was coming next, what dreadful portent to snap the bonds of her reason?
The links jerked taut. Another figure lurched forward into the moon, blinked, raised his head. Black, mindless eyes bored into her very soul, shriveled it to nothingness. Mad, mad, every one of them! Madmen, chained to each other like wild beasts, marching along the road like slaves to some dreadful auction block! Hate distorted his stubbled countenance; mad lust leered at her from under a mop of uncut hair. His chains clanked startlingly, he lurched toward the house with sudden motion. He had seen the terrified girl at the window.
Again that sinister, hissing sound. He jerked backward, the links stiff as ramrods. Unutterable terror flared like sheet lightning over his hideous, lecherous face. His head bent low, his shaggy form strained forward. The chains resumed their rhythmic clanking, and darkness swallowed him whole.
Clank, clink, clank! Oh God, was there no end? More chains writhing through the moon-flooded spot; another bowed and mindless figure, stumbling through the patch, blind and weary, not pausing in his staggering pace, not lifting his head. Black night enfolded him too. And still another figure moved into the light, shaking his head from side to side, leaping upward with little grotesque hops, jerked downward by the restraining metal, mouth wide in horrible, soundless chuckle. He was even more dreadful in his mindless mirth than the others.
And still the double chains writhed backward into the night. An endless, marching army of the damned, hell's creatures clanking their way from blackness to blackness. Laura could stand it no longer. Her throat was a strangling fire, her body a shivering lump of ice. Madness plucked at her own brain, leered at her with eyes like those of the manacled Things, invited her with loathsome whispers to join that procession of the doomed.
With the last grim shreds of her reason she held back the shrieks, held back from rushing out into the night. The road bent in a sharp curve around the house. The clanking madmen now enfolded her, hemmed her in on three sides. Behind was the grim, precipitous up-thrust of Superstition Mountain. Soon they would turn, creep forward through the murk, spring upon her with horrid slaverings.
Her heart rapped out a last desperate tattoo, then stopped altogether. Everything stopped; every process of her being. The room, the night, the earth, the universe, froze like a run-down clock. This was death, or worse...
OUT in that little spotlight of the damned, another figure had moved—another unit in that endless, terrible procession. He was thinner than the others, and his clothes, ripped and torn though they were, held still a semblance of civilization. His lean, etched head was lowered, and the chains clanked dismally from his wrist and ankle.
The moonlight gloated over his form, slithered over every slender line. He jerked his head upward, dug his heel in the dirt for a sudden stop. The chains tightened and clashed with harsh, metallic noises. His eyes, wide, dark, blank-seeming, were fixed on the house, on the very window where Laura stood, turned to nightmare marble.
The universe stopped, then crashed into headlong ruin. That staring face—smeared with filth, hollow with the sagging stupor of the idiot—was the face of Frank, her husband!
For one long second, her heart was a small, still ball; for one eternal second, her mind was blank and dark as the faces of the madmen, as even Frank's was. Then heart and lungs and brain seethed and roared with whelming floods. She whimpered in her throat like an animal in pain. It was impossible; it was not true! It was a delusion, a frightful dream come to torment her! What was Frank, her adored Frank, doing in that dreadful company? No! No! He was still down in the village, buying supplies. Something had happened to delay him; he had met someone he knew. They were talking, unmindful of the time.
That was it. Certainly this was all a bad dream from which she would wake soon—shuddering and gasping with strange, remembered terrors—and Frank, his dear face aglow as ever with live intelligence and with tenderness for his wife, would be shaking her gently by the shoulder.
She hugged that thought, turned it and twisted it in her half-mad mind. Madness, madness! She was mad; not them outside. It was all only a trick of the fiendish moon, done to plague her. Oh Lord, please don't let them torment me like this; please drive them away!
But the figure of Frank refused to fade into mist as had the others; his sightless eyes clutched at the window, yet did not seem to see. Then she knew it was true, that it was real. The curtain ripped away in her down-gripping hands; she lunged against the window, eyes wide, mouth grim with a force beyond all fear. Her husband was out there, chained like a wild beast, broken to a mindless wretch. But he was hers, hers! She must get to him, she must rescue him, tend him carefully. Nothing else mattered. The window was the quickest, shortest way.
Glass crashed under her beating fist. The jagged shards pierced her delicate fingers, gashed them cruelly. But she did not even feel the pain. She raised her bleeding hand to smash out the rest.
Frank's head came higher. Was that a flicker of light, a mere spark of moon in his eyes, or was it warning? She had no chance to know.
Out of the blackness of the road behind leaped a figure. His form was shrouded in a mantle of swirling black; his head was a startling mask of white. The moon beat in vain against the grey baldness of his head, the white bushiness of his eyebrows, the snarl that contorted his bloodless features. His right arm was uplifted, and a long, snaky whip swept downward with a hissing sound.
The lash whistled on Frank's bent back, bit deep in shuddering agony. A quiver raced across his dirt-encrusted countenance; then it was wiped clean of all expression, vacuous with the dreadful emptiness of the mad.
Frank stumbled, lurched forward, head bowed down like the others. He moved out from the ghastly spotlight, into the hellish darkness of the trees, with never a backward glance. After him strode the jailer, whip hissing and writhing, his face, turned momentarily toward Laura, a leering object of evil. Then he too vanished into the murk.
Laura must have shrieked then. Woods and shattered window and the moon above joined in a devil's dance. Round and round and round—blur of whips and mouthing maniacs and insistent rhythm of clanking chains. Farther and farther—fading away; then closer—closer, strangely transmuted into a hissing and crackling like...
She opened her eyes, looked wildly around. Where was she? The room was a thing of groping shadows. The logs on the hearth were dull, red embers. At one end, a last charred stick had fallen, flared into fantastic flame, crackled, and died again. It was that which had brought her out of her faint.
Faint? Laura struggled unsteadily to her feet, looked with dull wonder at her bleeding arm, pressed it to her aching head. What had happened, why had she fallen down? The night wind blew across her cheek. Good Lord, she must have left the door open, or Frank...
"Frank!" The name forced its way out in a tearing crescendo of remembered terror. "Frank!" It all came back in a nightmare sweat that drenched her limbs. "Frank! Frank!" she screamed again, and plunged for the sagging door. With undreamt-of strength she ripped open the last, loose bolt, sent the crazy barrier crashing to the ground. Out on the porch she ran, calling again and again: "Frank!"
But the anguished name was lost in the muttering forest, in the unrelieved blackness of the night. The moon had dropped behind Superstition Mountain, and the glacial stars mocked her desperation. The road was a dim thread of darkling stuff, and the leprous patch was gone.
Silence pressed down upon her with weighted shrouds. No sound of chains, of thudding feet, of hissing whip. The chained madmen had gone their clanking way, and with them, Frank. Frank, who had seemed mad as they, bound to them in hideous life and death!
Oh God, she mustn't go mad. That was what they wanted, that hellish crew and still more hellish jailer. Perhaps, out there, in the Stygian gloom, they still lurked, moving forward with each rustle of the masking night breeze, coming to drag her down with them.
Her eyes were balls of fire, her ears a straining tension. The night closed in on her with stealthy whispers. Alone in a forest of evil, where mindless Things gloated and lusted for her. If only Frank... She sobbed aloud, and the sound was like plunging knives. Frank was out there too!
She must save her husband. Fear dropped from her like an outworn garment. Her brain cleared. She must get help to rescue him, to rid Squam Village of the marching horror. One mile down the winding dirt road lay the village, one long mile of unrelieved darkness and shapes and sounds and Things in chains.
The skin crawled over her flesh, but she forced herself down the steps, across the little clearing, into the road. If only she had a flashlight! But the batteries had gone dead in the old one, and Frank had expected to buy new ones in the village.
On and on she went, groping her way along, smashing into trees, tripping over unseen roots, hearing the loud thud of blood in her ears, hearkening to the scuttering noises of the woods, panting, gasping for breath, jerking with unimaginable terror when a ghostly branch whipped across her face. She must have been delirious half the time; her blurred senses gave no clear impression of that dreadful flight. But indomitable will, the flame of her love for her husband, forced her on and on.
The invisible road dipped sharply. Below her, nesting in a hollow, was the tiny village of Squam. It was an oasis in a wide-flung desert of pine and towering hemlocks. A single light glowed ahead, in the very center of a clump of huddled shapes. Its feeble, yellow flame struggled wanly through an oblong of dirt-encrusted window; its tiny flicker died in hopeless struggle with the encroaching darkness.
But the glare of a thousand arcs, the brilliant illumination of the Great White Way, could not have been more welcome to Laura just then. Tears streamed down her pallid cheeks as she flogged her tottering limbs toward that glimmer of hope.
She swayed uncertainly across the threshold of the General Store, Squam's only business mart and focal center. Here, amid boxes of crackers and open barrels of sugar, between fly-specked counter and shelves bulging with faded calico bolts and unsold axes, hugging the pot-bellied stove in winter and spitting dexterous gobs of tobacco juice against its cold, grey sides in summer, congregated nightly the men folk of Squam.
Here, under the rheumy eyes of old Matt Kroll, owner and tutelary genius, were settled the profoundest political problems of the nation as well as the proper bait to use for pickerel in the nearby lakes.
A single lantern swayed drunkenly from a cobwebbed rafter. The air was drowsy with cheap tobacco and the odor of much-worn clothes. A half-dozen men sprawled negligently over as many boxes, their forms indistinct in the wavering yellow smoke.
Old Matt was saying in his high, querulous voice, edged with anger at some unexpected opposition: "I tell you, Lem. I seen 'em with my own eyes, down in the Holler, a-marchin' under the moon an'—"
Laura caught at the door jamb and fought for breath. These men would help her, they would find Frank for her. They were natives, born and raised in the woods; they would track down the man with the whip and his hellish rout.
Lem saw her first. He clucked out a warning that made Matt break off abruptly. Lem was the town cobbler and village atheist. He and Matt were forever arguing over the old wives' tales that clustered around Superstition Mountain. But now the sneer wiped off his dark, bony face, and fear leaped into his snapping, black eyes. Matt suspended his last word in midair, and his jaw gaped as if he had seen a ghost.
The other men, workers in the lumber camps, turned negligent, stubbly faces toward the girl framed in the doorway, and froze as they were.
"Miss' Standish, heh, heh!" Matt cackled with obvious effort. "Why, it sure is good tuh see yuh. I wuz jes' telling the boys..."
Some inner reserve of strength pushed Laura into the center of the room. Matt wavered and stopped. No one noticed. All eyes were intent on the panting girl. A deathlike silence enveloped her.
"My husband, Mr. Standish," she gasped. "He—he's...!"
There was secret terror in the furtive glances they gave each other. Lem averted his eyes, broke in hastily: "Why sure, Missus Standish. He was here 'bout three hours ago. Got hisself some groceries and went on home. Didn't he now, Matt?"
Matt's shrunken face was suddenly more shrunken than before. He mumbled over toothless gums what might have been confirmation.
"But he never reached home!" Laura cried desperately. "He—never—reached home!" she repeated with a dreadful sob.
No one moved; no one stirred. Even the lifting layers of smoke seemed frozen in the air. Eye sought eye stealthily, thin lips licked secretively. Silence eddied about Laura like a hostile sea.
Lem's swarthy face was a dirty grey. "Heh, heh!" he chuckled with forced heartiness. "Mister Standish musta taken the long way back. P'raps he stopped at Bottomless Pond t' catch hisself a mess o' bass fer supper. Bought hisself a fishin' rod from old Matt, didn't he now?"
There was a chorus of eager grunts. Laura looked wildly around at their dim-seen faces. They knew something; something dreadful. They were hiding it from her.
"You don't understand!" she cried imploringly. "I—saw Frank. He was—" She fought against rigid throat muscles at the memory. "He was in chains, manacled—with madmen. Oh God!" she hid her eyes shudderingly. "They marched and clanked, and a Thing with a whip beat them on." She took her hands away and screamed out. "Frank will go mad! They will kill him! You must—you must save him."
A box fell over with a startling crash. They jittered to their feet, babbling hoarsely. Their hands trembled and their jaws twitched with uncontrollable nerves. Their stubbly faces were grey with fear.
"You're crazy, gal," Lem snarled through stiffened lips. "You've been dreaming, an' seein' things in yuhr sleep. Bet Mister Standish is home right now, wonderin' whut's become of yuh."
Two lumberjacks in the rear, great hulking fellows, shuffled furtively toward the rear of the store, where a door led out to the back road. Shoulders hunched, they slunk out into the night.
Old Matt, the storekeeper, opened his mouth, gulped, but no words issued. "Lem's right," a lanky woodsman muttered, and eased unobtrusively toward the door.
Scorn, searing anger, effaced all other emotions in Laura. These men were afraid, that was it, deathly afraid of something. They would not help—they dared not help! They were trying to make her out as mad, subject to hallucinations. She had not seen? God, if only she hadn't! See how they were scattering like chaff, slinking away into the night, like cowardly rabbits.
"I did not dream," she blazed, "and you—and you—and you—" she stabbed an accusing finger at each cowering man in turn, "know it as well as I. You are afraid—cowards, all of you!" Then her scorn broke down, and she was a frightened, sobbing girl again. "Please," she implored, and choked over the words, "help my Frank! They have made a mad Thing out of him; they are whipping him with terrible whips. Please!"
They looked at each other uneasily. Terror was bright in their eyes. The gangling woodsman had already edged toward the entrance, and he moved suddenly into the blackness. There was an oath, an exclamation, a squeal of terror from the escaping man as he rebounded back into the room. Feet clumped angrily.
"Good Lord, Wally, what's the matter with you?" someone said gruffly. Wally shrank against the shelves, trembling like a leaf. Two men entered with hearty, banging strides, like a breath of fresh air into that brooding, fetid room. Laura gave vent to a gasp of relief. Here were men who would understand, who would believe. More, they would act; they would force these others into shamed movement.
"Thank God you've come, Sheriff!" she cried.
"Hello!" The tall, spare man with the greying hair and grim, weathered face stopped short with an air of surprise. "What are you doing out this time o' the night, Mrs. Standish?"
His companion, a stout, rubicund individual with a bright gold watch chain across his ample stomach, and a shabby stethoscope peeping out of his vest pocket, looked quickly at Laura's drawn, bloodless face, then at the staring, silent men in the store. He was the village physician, Dr. Alva Carey. He had stopped several times at their cottage to pass the time of the day.
"What's happened, Laura?" he asked sharply.
Everything was a haze to her. Precious minutes were passing, while Frank... She sobbed out: "You—you must believe me. Madmen, with a monster who whips them on, have caught my husband. They have chained him; they are driving him mad. Doctor, Sheriff, you must—must save him!"
Split second of hesitation in which time seemed to stand still. Would they think her mad too, as those others pretended; would they...?
Dr. Alva Carey cleared his throat. That little sound crashed upon Laura with the dreadful effect of a thousand tons. Oh God, he did not believe!
"I'd suggest." be said with careful casualness, "a little sleeping draught tonight, Laura." He fished in his capacious pocket, pulled out a fold of brown paper, extended it to her.
She dashed it violently out of his hand. It dropped to the floor, burst open, and white, crystalline powder sprinkled over the dirty, pine boards. Fools, fools, all of them! She caught hold of the Sheriff's rusty black coat with a desperate, imploring gesture.
"Sheriff, I demand you do your duty. I tell you I saw them with my own eyes, marching in chains right in front of my own house. I saw—Frank. He stopped, looked at me. Then that frightful monster whipped him on. If you don't hurry, it'll be too late. Too late!"
Sheriff Tom Beasley looked down at the panting, swaying girl. His lips tightened. There was perceptible hesitation in his manner.
"Well, Mrs. Standish," he drawled, "if you put it that way, I s'ppose there's nothing else for me to do, but go hunting through the woods. But that there tale o' yours, as Dr. Carey kin tell you, is one of the oldest stories we got round these here parts. That's how Superstition Mountain, back of your place, got its name."
Dr. Carey nodded absently. "That's right, Laura," he muttered. But his manner was fidgety, as if he were anxious to get away.
"But you'll go, won't you, Sheriff?" she implored.
Sheriff Beasley sighed audibly, tightened his belt, looked with longing eyes at the ancient stove, plentifully decorated with tobacco juice, spat, and said:
"Right this minute, ma'am. I'll get out right now an' comb the woods. My advice to you, though, is tuh go back home, and see if maybe your husband's there by this time." The Sheriff turned to the silent few who were left in the store. "Any o' you boys want tuh help me?" he inquired genially. "I'll swear ye in as deputies."
No one answered. As one man, the lumberjacks drifted to the door, vanished hastily into the night. Lem brought up the rear. His dark, glowing eyes were full on Laura as he passed, then he too was gone.
Dr. Carey fidgeted, looked at his watch. "Good Lord!" he muttered. "I've got a call to make. 'Bye, Laura, and don't worry. Frank'll be all right. Bet he's waiting for you now." Then he was out, hastily. The next moment the rattle-bang of his Ford made thundering echoes along the road.
Sheriff Beasley looked at Matt Kroll, the storekeeper, who seemed as if frozen behind his counter, and chuckled morosely.
"Lots o' help a peace officer gets in Squam, eh, Matt?" He turned to Laura. "Now don't you go worryin'," he advised. "I know these woods like a book. An' if they's any bunch like you say in there, I'll get 'em." His grim lips were a straight, compressed line, and his lean, sinewy hand patted the holster that protruded underneath the rusty black of his coat. A tarnished star gleamed dully on his shirt. But Laura detected skepticism in his frosty, blue eye, saw the imperceptible wink he tipped old Matt.
Then he clumped through the door, down the sagging steps. His boots made dull, thudding noise in the night and died away to a faint shuffle.
LAURA pressed her hand to burning temples. No one believed her, not even the Sheriff. Yet—faint hope—he had promised help. He was efficient, he knew the woods. Perhaps...
A dull ache pervaded her being. Somehow, she knew that Beasley would never find Frank. That skull-faced man with the whip, driving his chained maniacs along—no human being could find him. A little moan parted her gelid lips.
Old Matt Kroll stirred. His shrunken visage was a faint blur behind the counter. "What ye aim to do now, Miss' Standish?" His voice was high and querulous.
Laura started. She had forgotten he was still there. Suddenly she was afraid of this store of flickering, yellow shadows, of the weazened storekeeper whose rheumy eyes blinked like those of a cat.
"I—I am going back home," she gasped. "Perhaps my husband has returned. Perhaps it was all—" She was near the door, poised for flight. She stopped, lifted a bewildered hand to her forehead. Was it possible that it was all a dreadful dream; that she had never seen...?
Matt pressed the counter with stiff fingers. Driving terror cracked his voice. "Don't ye do that, Miss Standish! Fer God's sake, don't ye go back t' that place. Stay here in the village. I'll put ye up in my place, only don't go back. If it's—"
He broke off, clamped his trembling lips tight. He had said too much. But Laura shook her head wearily. "I must," she said very low. "If Frank is there, he'll need me. I—thanks—"
She fled out into the cool air, driving her aching limbs through the murky dark again. Matt's quavering accents followed her, hoarse with warning, with fear. "Don't go! Wait, I want to—"
But the dense, marching trees swallowed his words. Up and up she climbed, up to the base of Superstition Mountain where their cottage nestled—the secluded, lonely house in which they had planned to spend such a lovely summer. Laura's lips drew back in a bitter groan even as she flogged her way through the impenetrable darkness. Each tree was a thing of menace, behind which lurked a maniac with glaring eyes; each whisper of wind in the branches the crackling hiss of the whip; each rock that loosened beneath her pounding feet clashed with the sound of chains.
But one driving purpose held her from going mad, from falling headlong, a gibbering, screaming thing, in the crowding forest. Frank was home—waiting for her, wondering where she was, worrying! All the men in the store had said so. Dr. Carey was sure of it. They ought to know; they knew this place and all its tales. She must have imagined it, of course. Something that she had heard in the village and forgotten, had troubled her dreams in front of the waning fire. She had slept, hadn't she? She pumped air into her gasping lungs. It was all very natural. She hadn't awakened until much later, with the dream thick upon her, and she had rushed out like a madman. How Frank would laugh and scold her in that gentle way of his! How the village folk would gossip and whisper about her nerves behind her back. She could never face them again. But—and dread cramped her limbs again—they had known. She had seen it in their faces, in the way they had slunk from her presence as if she were a plague. She lashed on in the Stygian gloom, heedless of ripping branches, and stumbling feet. What terrible conspiracy of silence had been wrapped around her; what awful thing was being hidden from her?
They knew what had happened to her husband. They knew, and the blood had drained from their faces, had locked their lips in frozen fear!
The faint starshine disclosed the clearing ahead, the place where the chained madmen—and Frank—had clanked on their way to Hell. Nothing was there now, nothing but slinking shadows and a blob of trees. She turned up the path, with feet that suddenly dragged. Her heart was a pounding trip hammer. Anticipation squeezed her skull. Soon she would know...
The house loomed like an unquiet shadow. A faint flicker of red peeped out at her, died into the merest glimmer. Her heart stopped pumping; she swayed, forced herself erect again. It was true then. She had not dreamt. The door lay on the porch just as it had fallen, and that little whisper of flame was the dying hearth-fire in the living room.
She moved forward like an automaton. Nothing mattered now. Frank was in chains, a maniac, held in thrall for some frightful purpose. There was nothing for her to live for—nothing!
Without knowing what she did, she entered the living room. A dim glow of red stained the bottom of the fireplace. Soon it would be gone, and the advancing shadows would claim the place for their own. She shivered and life flooded her veins again.
Oh God, what would she do, alone here, surrounded by creeping shapes, encompassed in darkness? She must have a fire, a great, roaring, blazing fire, to chase the grinning maniacs back to their lairs, to keep her from going mad through the long, dreadful hours before daylight. There was a stack of wood in the alcove recess the other side of the hearth. Frank had chopped it, and sawn it into neat lengths only that morning. How faint and far away it all seemed!
Good Lord? What was that? She stopped dead in her tracks, whirled around to face the door. She wanted to scream and could not; icy fingers slithered along her spine.
Something was coming up the path, dragging, shuffling, as if... Dread encased her in a gelid sheath, held her in a death-like grip. Up the stairs to the porch the Thing dragged leaden feet, its breath, loud in the stillness, was like a whine. For a moment it hesitated, and the panting grew heavier. Then, slowly, very slowly, it dragged across the creeping boards. Laura felt as if she were in a press that ground her bones to powder and crushed her frozen flesh into a million splinters. Shrieks tore her throat yet could not issue.
Something dim and shadowy bulked in the doorway. It swayed, straightened, turned its blurry head from side to side. Then, pad—pad... it was coming in!
The bonds of terror broke. Her body flooded with roaring flame. Shriek after shriek burst from her throat. The figure jerked to a halt, then raced forward.
Laura shrank away. Had terror turned her brain, made her insane? But there was nothing unreal about the arms that gripped her tight, the tremulous flow of endearing expressions, tenderness known only to the two of them. It was Frank who held her close, so close that the thumping of her heart was one with the equally loud pounding of his own; it was Frank whose mouth sought hungrily for hers. The ecstacy, the reaction, was too much for her. With a little moan she sank limp in his arms.
It must have been only a minute after that she awoke dizzily. Fresh wood on the hearth had just caught, and the yellow-blue flames were licking greedily up the sizzling pitch that exuded from the pine. Frank was bending over her, his face in the shadows.
"Frank darling, what a dreadful nightmare I had. Can you imagine—I thought you were chained to madmen, that you too were...? But it's all over now. You're back, you're really back!" She extended aching arms. "Kiss me, dearest."
Why did he stiffen against her questing arms? Why did he keep his face averted in the shadows? A terrible fear flared through her bursting veins. She lashed upward to her feet from the couch on which she had been extended; she caught the hand that hung limply at his side. The contact sent a chill to her heart; it was so icy cold.
Terror seized her again. She dragged him by main force to the fire, kicked with backward heel at the logs on the grate. They flared into a blaze of sparks. The shadows ebbed away from her, from her husband. He tried to disengage himself, to jump back into the fleeing darkness, but she gripped him with desperate strength.
"Frank!" The anguish of her voice beat about him like surf on a rocky shore. His face! Oh God, his face!
It was blank and grey in the stormy red of the fire. It was cold and hard and bruised, but the bruises had been washed with painstaking care. In that first moment, his eyes, those eyes that had always glowed with tender love at the sight of his wife, had held a secret glare, a wild, fearful light she had never seen before.
But even as she shrieked, something else struggled in their depths; something excited, that tried to mask itself into a poor replica of that former tenderness. A wan smile flitted over his grey countenance that chilled her blood even more than the earlier blankness. Frank was trying to conceal himself from her, to mask from her wifely eyes the hell that raged beneath.
"Laura," he muttered, "don't be afraid. Everything—will—be all right!" How terribly strange and stiff his voice sounded; with what effort he spoke!
She shrank away from him. "Then it was true, all of it!" she gasped.
"I don't know what you mean," he said thickly. "Nothing's true. You've been dreaming."
Oh God, he too thought that! Or was he pretending, as he would if he were really—mad? For the first time in her life, she felt fear in the presence of her husband. What had those monsters done to him?
She stared frenziedly at his clothes. They were no longer in disarray, as they had been—out there. They had been brushed, smoothed out; but a sleeve was rent—a tear showed on trouser leg. His coat was close about him, as if to hide some dreadful thing beneath.
"Tell me the truth!" She came close, caught his shoulders, glared into his eyes. He tried to pull away, but she held him fiercely. "Tell me—everything! I am your wife. I won't desert you, Frank. I'll care for you, I'll nurse you—" her voice broke, "back to health. Only tell me!"
"There's nothing to tell," he said vaguely, and his gaze slithered past her. "But I must be getting back; there are things I must do. But you," and for the first time the warmth of human emotion crept into his voice, "you must not stay here, Laura. You must go to the village at once, to Dr. Carey. Stay there until you hear from me again. And for God's sake, in the name of our love, of all that we meant to each other, do not ask me any more questions now, and do not stir from Dr. Carey's house until you hear from me. Do you understand? No matter what else you hear or see!"
His voice was urgent, imploring now. He gripped her slender arms with fingers that were chilled with cold. His eyes swung to hers; in their depths was driving desperation, but—thank God!—no trace of madness. Laura swayed happily. Her husband was sane, sane as she was! The whole thing had been a confused nightmare! She had mistaken someone else who resembled him in that furtive, shimmering moonlight. He wanted to protect her; he knew there were unclean Things on the mountain. She would not ask questions.
"All right, Frank," she murmured, "I'll do as you say."
Again she saw that strange gleam in his eyes. He dropped his hold, tugged at his coat pocket. His arm came out, holding a small flashlight.
"Here!" he said with queer, strained voice once more. "I got it in the village for you. You'll need it to show you the road."
She reached for it dully. His long, lean hand was out, extended, holding the black cylinder with scrubbed fingers. The sleeve of his coat fell back a bit. No shirt cuff showed. His wrist protruded, bare and white. Bare and...!
The flashlight dropped with a clatter to the floor. She had seen! Oh God, she had seen! Everything was true, everything! The house rocked before her fainting vision, her husband's face swung in a hideous, distorted arc. A whimper of fear wheezed in her throat.
Frank caught her haunted gaze, followed it stupidly to its focus on his exposed wrist. A broad red mark encircled his flesh, a sinister band against the dead-white pallor of his arm. A metal manacle had dug deep into that skin and shrinking flesh; a manacle which had been recently removed.
His eyes came up smoldering, then flared with strange lights. His lips worked madly; he mouthed thick, indistinguishable words. Laura shrank back from the man who was her husband. Terror fought with the great love she had borne him. In a delirious flash, she saw everything. Frank had come back to her—a madman! He was no longer the man she had loved. He had come back, transformed, bestial, crafty with the perverted cunning of the insane, to entice her into the woods, where his fellow creatures could pounce upon her, could...!
She flung up a warding hand. Her horror-warped mind burst into a flare of rocketing lights. Toneless shrieks tore her frame to shreds.
Her husband too!—a step forward, hands clawing out. She stumbled back, back until her heel thudded against solid wall. Then, suddenly, he stopped, listened with tense fixity. Outside, from far away, came a faint, terrible sound. The unmistakable hiss of a whip slashing through the night.
Frank seemed to hesitate. His clouded gaze swung irresolutely from his whimpering wife to the door. The whip cracked again, nearer, louder. One quick, startled glance and he was racing toward the door, racing as if—oh God!—his master was calling him!
The bonds of fear fell from Laura. One desperate thought hammered at her brain. He was going back, back to that troupe of the damned, back to the Hell from which he had come. He was leaving her forever!
She started away from the wall; she stumbled across the expanse of floor. Tears blinded her eyes, weariness locked her limbs to nightmare slowness.
"Frank, come back to me! Frank, don't go; don't leave me!" she wailed. But he did not hear; he could not hear. Out there in the woods, black with the blackness of Hell, came swift, rustling sounds. Then a sudden crash, followed by a silence thick with unknown terror.
Laura stumbled out on the porch, tripped, fell headlong to hard, unyielding boards. Somewhere, far off, before she drifted into oblivion, a Thing raised its voice in an eerie, gloating chuckle?
An ape-like maniac pressed close over her rigid body. Laura could feel the glare in his red-rimmed eyes, the fetor of his breath. His hands slithered clammily under her shoulder; something hard and unutterably cold pressed against her ribs. A chain rattled loud in her ear.
With a faint shriek, she opened her eyes. Dim in the starlight, a figure bulked heavily over her. Even as fear parted her lips, it moved away; the small, hard object lifted. The chain gleamed yellow against a rounded background.
Dr. Alva Carey clucked soothingly as he crammed his stethoscope back into his vest pocket, jingled his watch chain. "You gave me quite a turn, Laura—finding you stretched out unconscious like that. But you're all right."
Slowly Laura's fuddled senses focused on reality again. For a moment she stared upward at the rubicund, kindly-seeming face of the rotund doctor. There was something in his eyes that he tried to hide; something that belied the cheerfulness of his smile. She tottered to her feet. Fear beat with thudding wings against her ribs. What was masked behind that smile? What had he been about to do before she wakened?
Dr. Carey moved toward her. How carefully casual was his voice. "Frank Come back yet?" he asked.
Frank! Laura glared wildly around. Great God, had she forgotten? The broken door leered vacantly back at her; the woods were a darkling, sinister stretch; Superstition Mountain reared its vast, inaccessible bulk directly to the rear—a gigantic, truncated mass of stone against a frost-blue sky.
She wrung her bleeding hands. "He—he's gone again," she wailed. "He was here, mad, like the rest. Then—then, the whip cracked, calling for him, and he went. I must have fainted." All former fears were forgotten in the agony of that terrible recital. Frank, her husband, was gone forever—a maniac! She caught hold of the doctor's sleeve with imploring, desperate gesture. "Dr. Carey," she cried, "you must find him; you must save him."
The doctor pulled away. His eyes were hard, blue pebbles and they refused to meet her anguished ones. They stole surreptitiously to the flattened top of the mountain, flicked away again. "I'll see what I can do," he muttered evasively. "In the meantime," he continued, and for the first time he stared directly at the girl, "I want you—"
She shrank away as he moved closer. She was suddenly afraid of this doctor who had mocked at her story in the village, who had appeared without explanation at this place in the heart of the woods, and who looked at her so strangely...
He reached out to lay his hand on her arm. Laura jerked blindly away, whirled to run, when both froze in their tracks as if turned to stone. Far off—so far it seemed to emanate from the distant sky—came a long-drawn-out howl. It was the howl of a man in the last agony of pain; it was the bitter cry of a human being whom torture had bereft of reason. It was the voice of Frank Standish!
Close on its heels came a fainter sound, muffled but unmistakable and sinister in its implications. The sharp hiss of a whip lashing across a bared, slashed back. Hiss, crack, swish! But no further answering noise from a tortured throat. Then all was silence again, as if the shuddering sky had closed its portals against such dreadful deeds.
Laura's flesh crawled on her skeleton; red lightning thundered in her skull. With an inarticulate moan she tottered forward, stumbled, and fell. Dr. Carey stood momentarily motionless on the porch. The starshine shimmered with ghastly pallor on his rounded form. His ruddy smoothness had become grim and hard and grey. His eyes were fuliginous flares. His lips writhed in grey distortion. "So they've started!" he snarled.
The next instant, he was pounding down the steps, over the clearing, up the rutted lumber road toward the mountain. Over his shoulder he yelled in a queer, harsh voice: "Stay where you are, Laura! Don't you dare leave the place!" Then all sound ceased, and the woods became alive with stealth and the noiseless groping of eerie Things.
Laura rose unsteadily to her feet. Her limbs were water-weak; her skin, a prickling sheath of horror. But one consuming thought blazed in her brain. It seared all fears—all dread for her own safety—to shriveled, tenuous wisps.
Frank had cried out like a mindless animal; Frank was in the clutch of a Devil who drove the creatures he had made mad with whip and clanking chains. She, and she alone, must save her husband!
But where was he? From what distant lair in that ominous, far-spreading forest had that tortured wail emanated? She clenched her lips until the blood came. Despair overwhelmed her. The woods billowed like a waveless ocean, vast, interminable. No further sound drifted to her straining ears. That strange, roaring noise she heard was the pounding of her own blood.
Suddenly she stiffened. Superstition Mountain! The great, truncated block of primeval stone slashed the star-studded brambles, scrambling through rubble and sky like a grotesque Titan. Its treeless, granite flanks scowled down upon her with lowering laughter. Dr. Carey had flicked his surreptitious glance at its ominous bulk, had looked hastily away when he thought she saw. At Frank's last anguished shriek, he had raced up the old lumber road—the twin, dirt tracks that dwindled to a trail and died abruptly at the grim up-thrust of the barrier wall.
Dim, half heard stories swarmed her fevered brain, crawled into every nook and cranny of her mind. Stories she had heard on the few occasions she had gone with Frank to the village to get their mail, to buy supplies. Stories that had been mumbled around the inevitable pot-bellied stove in the General Store, of strange lights that gleamed on certain moonless nights on the sawed-off top of Superstition Mountain, where no human being had ever climbed. In the dim, long past, hardier men than those who now inhabited the faded village of Squam had tried to scale those sheer, granite walls. None had ever returned; no trace of their bodies had ever been found.
It was they, claimed the villagers with bated breath, who, neither dead nor alive, were doomed to a dreadful eternity on the inaccessible top of the mountain. Their thin shrieks were heard on still nights as they bent under the lash of the Devil who drove them on his hellish business. They—and others who had gone into the woods since then and never returned. Death came from causes unknown, from drowning in Bottomless Pond, from the wildcats that still lurked in the farther forest, from accidental discharge of their own guns. But the natives of Squam knew better, and cowered at night under blankets when the lightnings played over that grim, stony mass and the crackling thunders were dreadfully like the crack of a snaking whip.
Frank had laughed at those stories raucously, and she herself, intent on her purchases from old Matt Kroll, had smiled at with half-absent thoughts. Only Lem, the cobbler atheist, and Dr. Carey, of the village folk, had not believed, and Lem alone had aired his opinions with harsh contempt.
LAURA'S body became rigid with sudden driving purpose. She clattered over the fallen door into the parlor. The fire in the hearth had died to dull, grey ashes; the boards creaked loudly underneath. But her seeking foot crunched against the flashlight Frank had dropped. She groped for it, found it. A flick of a frozen finger and a thin pencil of white light stabbed through the murk.
Out into the moonless night again, flogging her numbed limbs along under the whip of her will. Hurry! Hurry! The elongated oval of luminance pierced like a pointing sword before her. She raced across the open patch, thudded with slim, high-heeled shoes over the rough, uneven ruts of the road.
The woods raced with her. The trees bent down over the trail, plucked at her with slithering branches. The ground heaved and rocked unevenly with her insane flight. Unseen shapes padded stealthily through the black masses on either side, closing in on her with furtive gait. The stars gleamed wanly overhead and shed no radiance. The beam bored a tunnel of whiteness through the solid blackness, and tilted up and up. The road was climbing.
The road became the trail and then a thread of forgotten hooves. The trees were giving way to stunted firs, to tangled underbrush. Superstition Mountain hulked ominously above.
On and on she drove, the breath wheezing in her lungs, her heart a squeezing gout of blood. She held her eyes desperately ahead, focused on the beam that bobbed before her. She dared not look behind. That insistent sound was merely the thump of her own heart, the pounding in her own ears. But even as she clamored it to herself, she knew that it was not true.
Someone, something, was following her up the trail, was even now increasing its pace!
God, they were coming for her! The Things that were chained, the horde which had claimed her husband! They were coming to drag her, shrieking insanely, to their Master—he of the lash and horrible, white head.
Faster and faster she fled, heedless of twining saplings up the first slope of the mountain. Behind her, loud with doom, were pantings that were not her own—gusty sounds that did not issue from her throat. It seemed as if they were calling her, trying to slow down her pistoning limbs.
Her fingers froze to the flash. Her lungs were bellows without any air. The Thing behind was gaining. Soon it would be upon her, would...!
Insanity poured its gibbering turmoil into her brain. Laura did not know she was running and sobbing wildly now, did not know that even the trail was gone, that the mountain was a sky-climbing wall just ahead. One maniacal desire hammered at the confines of her skull. She must see this Thing that pursued her through the night, she must laugh shrill and loud in its face. Face? Perhaps it had no face; perhaps it was an insubstantial horror, an excrescence out of Hell. No matter. The desire to laugh, to shrill out her answering mockery, became an overwhelming madness.
She thrust her corpse-rigid head back over her shoulder. Her features glared with impending insanity. In her delirium, she did not realize that her back was against granite now, pressing into it with numb, icy flesh. She did not see the silent shape that rose like mist of the underworld out of the solid blackness of the mountain that moved toward her without a sound, with shadowy tentacles outspread...
ALL her shattering faculties were strained on the Thing behind, still clambering and puffing up the grade. She whipped her electric torch suddenly downward, back over the trackless waste she had just climbed.
The white pencil of flame flashed on a scrambling figure that jerked backward in startled fear. It held for a split instant on a swarthy, bony face, on eyes that gleamed like live, dark coals. The pursuer opened his mouth, and hoarse, strangled sounds spewed forth. Then his eyes flicked to one side of her. They went wide with desperate, grinding terror. With a great bound, he heaved out of the oval of radiance, into the blackness of the encompassing bushes. Shrill cries accompanied his sliding, plunging retreat down the rubble-covered mountainside.
Laura thrust back her head and laughed. There was madness in that laughter; there were fiery worms seething in her brain. But her limbs shook and her teeth unlocked.
It had been Lem—the cobbler of Squam, the village atheist—who had followed her, who had fled before the slash of the electric torch! She was safe now, safe to seek her husband, to get him away from the devils of the mountain.
The thought of Frank chased the crawling things from her skull, brought her back to sanity. She turned to force her way upward again. As she swung around, a shadowy shape flowed over her.
Suddenly she was enveloped in clinging, clammy folds. Her screams strangled in her throat, her flailing hands beat vainly against insubstantial softness. Something sickeningly sweet seeped into her consciousness. Her thoughts drifted slowly away. She tried to reach out for them, to hold them tight. Her mind tottered, fell into a bottomless pit of blackness. From far up, almost from the sky itself, came a low, snarling chuckle.
There was something wrong with this place. It was true it was night and her eyes were still closed in sleep. But this was not her bedroom on the upper floor of the summer cottage. Laura stirred uneasily, moaned in her drugged daze. She thrust out a lethargic arm, as she always did when she dreamt and the things she dreamed were frightening. The feel of Frank's firm, warm flesh, the little ridge of muscle along his shoulder blade, always comforted her, always soothed her trembling nightmare fears back to the sweet drowse of untroubled sleep.
But now nothing met her questing fingers, nothing but chill, dank air and hard, damp stone. The dull ache in her head exploded into hurtling shards; the clinging, sickening embrace fled from her limbs. Her pain-heavy lids swung open; her bewildered eyes fluttered like frightened birds. A scream ached in her throat, jittered thinly through her lips. She pulled leaden limbs upright from the rocky floor on which she had been sprawled.
She had not been dreaming! It was no nightmare that vanished with a touch, with the first level streamer of light through the east-facing window. Terror flooded her being anew, locked her throat tight. She glared wildly around. Where was she? Where had that shapeless Thing which rose out of the depths of Hell transported her? Was she dead and buried beneath whelming earth in a vaulted grave?
All around, enclosing her like a living tomb, was rock and solid, curving stone. Shiny black it was, spangled with innumerable pinpoints of fire that lit up the whole round of the chamber with a ghastly, eerie light. Alive and gloating they seemed, those pinpoints, like baleful eyes mocking her whichever way she turned. The strange radiance bathed her shrinking form in a yellowish aura of flame. It seemed to flow through her silken dress, to tingle with prickling fingers against her skin. It seemed to slither into her quaking flesh, to munch with greedy, invisible mouths at her very bones.
Suddenly she was afraid; unreasoningly, instinctively afraid of the ghastly, probing light which emanated from the walls. More afraid even than she had been of the madman who had heaved against her door, of the stumbling, manacled Things who had been whipped through the woods. Her whole body felt unclean, her skin crawled under the impact of those strange, unholy flares. The strength seemed to ebb from her body, from her bones. They could not longer support her.
Laura swayed blindly toward the nearer wall. Her smarting eyes lowered, blinking against the weird luminance. She jerked backward with a choked cry. Horror stiffened her spine, held her rigid and unmoving.
There, at her very feet, lay a row of ghastly, frightful Things. Things that had once been men, and now were unmentionable decay. Nude corpses from which the clothes had long since rotted, glowing in the pale, yellow glare with a terrible greenish putrescence of their own.
The hard, virescent flesh was pitted and gouged—as if fanged, unhuman monsters had munched their hideous meals; the eyes were holes, that yawned in flesh-less, grinning skulls; the jaw bones were crusted with dull, grey powder.
Corpses of men, dead for years, on whom the flesh had grown green and hard and pitted; corpses who had been carefully laid out in a grinning, dreadful row for her to see!
Laura's skull squeezed like the metal cap on a condemned man's head; rivers of ice pounded through her veins, crashed sickeningly within her heart. Merciful Heaven! These were the men of long ago who had dared scale the prohibited heights of Superstition Mountain, who had paid for their temerity with their lives. What demons out of Hell had done this to them? What fiends had thrust them in this gruesome chamber where the very walls flayed them with unholy light? Light that pitted and burned and seared—and held from natural decay...
Suddenly Laura knew that this was to be her fate; that she too was doomed to scrutiny from the myriad, baleful eyes hidden in the shiny, black walls. She knew that she too would soon be a gouged and green-glowing Thing, immured for all eternity with these others.
Great, tearing shrieks ripped from her pallid lips, shrieks that mounted and soared to the bursting point of madness. She dashed insanely from side to side, beating on the light-studded walls with bleeding hands. Her stumbling feet kicked against a phosphorescent corpse. They sank deep into moldy powder; ghastly dust that rose in a suffocating cloud. The solid-seeming Thing her shoe had touched had disintegrated into nothingness.
She jumped back, pressed her burning eyeballs with frantic fingers. Insanity knocked with peremptory summons at her brain. Her limbs twitched and her lips were a frozen orifice through which terror and madness went rocketing.
A thump penetrated somehow to her shrieking senses. What was that? She whirled just in time to see a yawning hole in the wall, to see two figures come clumping through.
Now surely, she was mad, even as Frank had been. Shrill laughter, more terrible than any scream, burbled from her lips. An insane husband and a maniac wife! What a perfect couple to roam the world together! She must find Frank and tell him of the jest. It rocked her sides and tore at her bones. Frank! She must go to him, tell him...!
If she were not mad, how could she have imagined these figures who stood motionless before her? First, a tomb of rock with a million glaring eyes; then corpses that flamed with a cold green fire, and crumbled into powder at her touch. Now these...!
They were huge, shapeless Things with grey, amorphous sides and fingerless appendages—monstrous beasts that stared at her unblinkingly out of round, glassy eyes set in grey globes that served for heads. Motionless, sinister, appalling! Like metal monsters they seemed to Laura's half-mad mind, spawned in the bowels of the earth; soulless beings obedient only to the will of Satan.
They stirred simultaneously into clanking movement. Their huge, hoof-like feet lifted, thumped down with metallic sound. Their dangling arms, grey and scaly, spread wide to engulf her.
The screeching laughter died in Laura's throat. A cold wind stirred her hot, dry skin, shivered down her spine. The madness fled and terror took its place. The monsters were coming for her!
Whimpering, she shrank back from their gelid embrace. On and on they came, with doomful, inexorable tread, the thump of their grey-shod feet loud in her ears. Back, ever back, forcing her closer and closer to the chrome-spangled rock, while the row of silent, green-tinged corpses grinned up at her with pockmarked laughter. Back, back, while her yielding feet stumbled and slid, and whimpers of fear grew to hopeless shrieks.
The monsters did not seem to hear; their glazed eyes did not waver. Laura felt smooth rock press against her back. She had reached the limits of the cavern. Pain lanced suddenly through her flesh; a thousand stinging arrows of fire. She swerved desperately away, just as a grey-skinned monster plucked with fingerless, shapeless hand for her body.
She stopped short, whirled again. The other loomed in her path, blocking with metal body and terrifying head all escape. Moaning, she darted back and forth in short, frenzied runs while the gruesome pair slowly and undeniably closed in, as if intent to crush her frail body between their unyielding forms.
An arm extended clumsily, swung around her slender waist. A baleful, unwinking sphere bent over her. Within that glassy eye, Laura sensed malignant hate, destroying lust. The touch of that whipping arm was icy hard to her quivering body...
With a last despairing scream Laura rebounded from the gelid contact. Blind, mad with terror, she lunged forward, low, like a wrestler. Her soft flesh smashed against a steel-hard leg, caromed off in a sprawling dive that carried her under a down-clutching arm. She was free for the moment.
But the monsters were already turning, slowly, clumsily. Strangled snarls of rage sounded in what might have been throats. They were coming for her again...
Laura pushed her trembling limbs erect. Where, in this place of horror, was there safety from the underworld Things? She shrank again from their thudding approach. This time they would get her; this time she could not escape!
The breath seemed frozen in her lungs, her legs were flowing water. She could not continue to fight. For the last time, she glared wildly around at the circumscribing rock with its unholy sparkle.
A grey monster lunged forward, just missing Laura as she leaped. But she had seen, and hope flared like a beacon light in her brain. Off to one side yawned round blackness. It was the opening in the stony wall through which the subterranean denizens had penetrated. What lay beyond she did not know; what dreadful horrors awaited her she did not pause to think. It was her only chance; and even now, as she hesitated, the farther creature seemed to read her thoughts. He quickened his clumsy gait; in another second, his metal form would be between her and the beckoning cavity.
She pivoted on her heel and ran madly for the opening. Muffled howls crashed in her ear drums; then blackness swallowed her whole. Her feet raced across the stony ground, forced her panting form up and up what seemed an endless tunnel. Behind her, the thick murk was loud with the pounding noise of pursuit. Laura sped on, caroming off invisible walls, bruising her tender flesh against sudden projections, slipping, stumbling, sobbing, squeezing her tortured lungs for the last reserve ounce of energy.
Then suddenly, the pursuing sounds ceased, and she was alone, in solid darkness. She leaned against a damp, cold wall, all strength gone. For what seemed hours, she swayed against the supporting rock, waiting for her pounding heart to slow to normal action; for her blood to stop its mad mill-race through her veins.
And all the while, her every sense was straining, listening for sounds or signs that the monsters had caught up to her. But the strange, breathless silence continued...
Were those grey denizens lurking back in the tunnel, blocking escape in that direction? Were they chuckling, even now, in those muffled, snarling tones of theirs, knowing that worse lay ahead for her; that soon she would rebound, desperately, madly, to welcome even their horror rather than what was at the end of the tunnel? But mercifully, she did not know...
Slowly her limbs resumed their functioning; slowly her brain clicked back to a semblance of coherent thought. She must think clearly if she were ever to get out of this frightful place.
Where was she? The enshrouding rock returned no answer, but she knew. The shadowy Thing had attacked her at the base of Superstition Mountain; when she awoke from her drugged unconsciousness, she was in a cavern; now she was in a tunnel of solid stone. That meant that somehow she had been carried into the very bowels of the granite upthrust; that even now, millions of tons of solid rock pressed down upon her.
Laura repressed the shudder of fear that rippled over her. Evil things were happening within Superstition Mountain, macabre beings swarmed in its womb who seemed not of earth or its denizens. And Frank, her husband? A pang pierced her heart. Where was he; what was being done to him in his mind-clouded state? What dreadful use was being made of him—of those other chained, bestial madmen who had clanked with bowed, brutish heads down the lumber path?
She started up again, aching for her husband. She must find him. Somewhere ahead, in the darkling upward swing of this mountain bore, lay the secret—and Frank! She must be brave; she must not give way to that shrieking madness again. Either she would win, or—well—life meant nothing without the man she loved...
LAURA put out her hand to find the wall. Its icy cold sent a shiver up her arm. She moved carefully along, feeling her way, trying to make no noise. But her heels clicked terrifyingly loud on the stone. For what seemed endless hours, she stumbled ever up and round and round in an ascending spiral.
In God's name when would this end? Suddenly she froze to the supporting wall. She pressed against its frosty surface as if she would push herself through the very rock. Nightmare terror encased her in a moveless shroud; retching nausea heaved at her stomach.
Somewhere, far ahead, came a dread, familiar sound. The clank, clank of chains dragging against stone. The manacled maniacs were coming for her!
Oh God, she could not stand this any longer! Behind her were the metal creatures, waiting for her in the cave of a thousand horrors. In front were madmen with brutish faces and gloating, red-lusting eyes. She was trapped, she had no way to turn, to run.
The clanking grew louder. The rock magnified the sound, the tunnel air caught it and threw it with unholy glee from wall to wall. Pad, pad went the naked feet.
Laura pressed tighter to the rock. A tiny flicker of hope pierced her frenzy. The steady, padding march was that of a single pair of misshapen feet. Perhaps, in the blanketing dark, he would not see her; perhaps he would pass her by unknowing.
She steeled herself for the supreme effort. He was closer now. She could hear the sharp rattle of chains, the banging sound they made as they struck against the rock. Bare feet pressed the stone with a sinister, sucking sound. Low, snuffling whimpers preceded him as he shuffled ceaselessly along, closer and closer. Already she could smell the peculiar fetor of the bestial mad, an effluvia that turned her stomach and made her faint with its foulness.
Here he was, snuffling and whining like an ailing dog. The noise of his groping approach was overwhelming. Laura bit her lips to keep back the terror that welled within her; she bruised her flesh in a mad attempt to make herself one with the wall. She held her breath until her lungs were suffocating and bright lights danced before her eyes.
Oh God, please make him go on; please make him miss me! He was almost abreast now; his fetid breath was a foul exhalation. Thank God, he was moving ahead! Thank God!
Laura gulped in air and froze again. He had stopped. In the pitchy blackness, nothing could be seen. But all sound had ceased, even the whimpering noises in his throat. The silence pressed down on Laura's skull with unbearable weights. He had heard that sudden intake of breath.
She dared not move, dared not make the faintest noise. Somewhere in the tar-barrel murk crouched the madman, waiting with perverted cunning for her to betray herself. A hideous game of hide and seek in which she was the mouse.
Death-like stillness, more terrible than any noise, grew hideously. An enveloping glare of unseen eyes; the stale, rank odor of an animal's den tainted the air. Laura swayed faintly. She fought to hold herself erect, to control the shuddering of her body.
A grim, premonitory clank came to her. The maniac was tired of waiting. His chains dragged, and his bare feet made shuffling sound. Along the wall came the slithering noise of a sliding, pressing hand. He was coming back for her!
Every nerve shrieked madly for her to run. But he knew this tunnel and she did not. She could never escape. Her only chance was to stay—motionless, soundless, hoping. Oh God! Flashes of burning heat and unutterable cold swept over her quivering form. She was suffocating, bursting with an agony of fear. The slobbering of his brutish lips was loud in her ears.
Something brushed against her side. A long, choked scream tore from her throat at that contact; she flogged her fainting body away; she tried to run. Too late! A great, hairy arm whipped out, caught her in a grip of steel. A hoarse, avid cackle came out of the darkness. The next instant, her thrashing form was lifted into the air. An overpowering stench enfolded her, and she was being carried swiftly—where...?
How long that dreadful journey took Laura was never able to tell. Mercifully, her mind was misted, unraveled by the very horror of her situation. It was the sudden cessation of movement—the murmur of strange voices—that roused her from her torpor.
Her captor had crouched against the wall; the thick gurgling in his throat had ceased. His filthy fingers dug deep into her form. Feet were moving up the tunnel.
A harsh voice raised in anger. The echoes made it hollow, artificial. "You damned fools!" it said. "You let her get away. If she finds her way out"
"It wasn't our fault, Boss," someone else whined placatingly. "It's those suits what did it. A fellow can't even turn properly in one o' them there things."
"Don't be worryin'," a third coarse voice spoke up. "She ain't got a chance t' get out. We'll find her fast enough, and then—" He chuckled, but there was no mirth in that chuckle.
"God help you if you don't," growled the one they called the Boss. He sounded nervous.
They were passing close by now, feet thudding in unison. Laura opened her mouth to scream, to cry out for help. They were at least human beings; perhaps there was mercy in their souls. There could be none in her captor.
But the madman sensed her movement. A great paw clamped down on her mouth, stifling the sound in her throat, choking her with vile odors.
Then the noise was further up, fainter and fainter, until it blanked out. Not until then did the maniac move. The retching noise in his throat was horribly like a paean of triumph. He moved swiftly again, heedless of clanking ends of chains, as if he knew he had nothing now to fear.
Laura gave herself up wholly for lost. The escaped madman was taking her to his secret lair, and then...?
Light glimmered ahead. It was yellow and dim, but it grew stronger as they progressed. Laura opened her pain-haunted eyes. The tunnel was widening. Then they were in a great, irregular cavern. Blinding lights flashed into her face, lights that stabbed and burned her body. Once more, she felt as if the bones were rotting within her shriveling flesh.
The jagged walls were alive with a million yellow sparkles, just as the smaller cave beneath. The black, gleaming rock was cut and hewn, and mounds of fragments and broken chunks flamed with a wild, unholy luster at regularly spaced intervals. It was a place of evil, of stifling, almost unbreathable atmosphere.
Her captor growled like a wolf whose hackles bristled against an unknown enemy. He seemed to sense the frightful burden of this blazing cavern, and hastened his shambling walk almost to a run. The chains clanked dismally behind him. Once more, his paw clamped over Laura's mouth, shutting off all sound.
Again the cavern narrowed, became another tunnel. The terrible luminescence was left behind, but another and ruddier radiance cast its flare ahead. Cool, night air flowed with reviving vigor over her pain-wracked body; helped mitigate the stupefying effluvia of the beast-man who pressed her close to his filth-stiffened shirt.
Somehow, she knew that here was the end of the journey; here would come the tremendous denouement to this night of terror and horror. What dreadful scene was she, a captive to a mindless beast, about to witness?
He was going slowly, cautiously now. His chains made barely perceptible noise. The tunnel took a bend. A rude, plank door blocked the opening to the outer world, but the planks were rough and so nailed as to leave wide gaps between.
The mindless being crouched before a crack. His hairy paw tightened on Laura so that her breath was a choking gasp. The growl in his throat was a low rumble of hate. Fighting for air to fill her lungs, helpless in a grip of iron, Laura nevertheless peered out into the night with him.
Before her stretched level rock, the truncated top of Superstition Mountain. The night pressed down with cold, dead stars on the desolate stone. The winds swept in from the sinister emptiness of space.
A blood-red fire leaped and mouthed tongues of flame at the whistling blast. Shadowy figures silhouetted blackly against its ruddiness, vanished into encompassing darkness, and reappeared again like disembodied creatures of the void.
But it was not this that held Laura's wide, horror-filled gaze, and brought the shrieks gurgling against the broad, restraining paw. It was the smooth, round pit that yawned in the solid rock, almost beneath her very eyes.
Flames spilled gory shadows into that dreadful hole, and tossed in a bloody scarlet on the upraised faces that swirled within. Faces loomed there: snarling and bestial, more animal than the ape, more cruel in their mindlessness than the wolf. Foam dripped from their protruding, slobbering lips; howls of rage mingled with gruesome cackling and horrible laughter. Great hairy arms swung threateningly up at the figures who moved restlessly about the fire. The blood-red light glinted on manacled wrists and long, pendant chains. One up-thrust, naked arm held a long white bone, horribly like the thigh bone of a human being. The creature who brandished it was chuckling, and as he snarled his eerie laughter, he thrust the gruesome relic into his mouth, and crunched on it with sickening sound.
Laura moaned and gagged. Her stomach churned with queasy motion. These were the maniacs who had been driven down the lumber road in chains. These, and others like them. From this pit had her captor somehow twice escaped. From this pit, in which they were manacled and staked like bears for some dreadful sport.
Suddenly she twisted with superhuman strength in the madman's arms. She flung free for a moment, and a great shriek of desperation burst from her lips before the smothering hand could grip her down again.
She had seen—in that leaping, twisting, rattling, howling mob of the living dead—Frank, her husband! His lean face was stubbled with dirt and unshaven beard, his cheeks were hollow with straining madness—and he leaped and danced and howled wilder and louder than all the rest.
"Frank!" She screamed in the last extremity of agony at the sight of him.
Instantly, the platform of rock was a swirl of movement. The shadowed figures around the fire leaped toward the sound. The madmen whipped up their clamor to a hideous pitch. Frank, the man who only that morning had kissed her with understanding affection, seemed to hesitate a split second. Then he too went on with his interminable leaping and howling. He had not even turned his head.
Laura's captor whipped his great arm about her throat with a bestial snarl. She gasped and tried to struggle, but the cruel pressure cut off all air. Searing pain lanced her neck; blackness enveloped her.
Then, suddenly, the pressure relaxed. The maniac whimpered with fear, threw her crashing to the ground, and ran with a huge clangor of chains back the way he had come.
"Get the girl!" a hollow voice ordered. "Never mind the other. He will keep."
She was being lifted, carried out into the open. The cool night air cut across her fainting senses, the rushing wind stung her back to life. She opened her eyes slowly, closed them again with a long, shuddering moan. Three men stood over her, etched in the flare of the whipping flames.
Three men! Two she had never seen before, though vaguely she sensed that they had been the monsters of metal in the cave of yellow horror beneath. Now they were clad in white, shapeless pants and semi-sleeve shirts. They grinned at her with evil mockery and the little worms of lust crawled in their narrowed eyes. One was broad and thick and heavy-set, with the bullet head and brutal look of a battered pugilist. The other was like a swooping vulture, with huge, enormous nose, black, bent brows, and misshapen, flapping ears.
But it was the third man who had forced the moan from her pallid lips and thrust icy fingers down her spine. Yet he seemed more kindly—as he was more ancient—than his brutish companions. A black shroud swathed his spare form. A wrinkled, bony mask of white emerged in startling contrast from the midnight robe. The top of his skull was a hairless, grey expanse. White, bushy eyebrows projected incredibly over shadowed eyes. His mouth was thin and bloodless and his cheeks were of a queer, grey pallor.
This was the man with the whip, who had driven his manacled slaves along the road, who had slashed Frank across the back when he had stopped in dumb vacuity before the house where his wife had crouched, shivering with terror.
The Boss motioned with his head. At once his two companions sprang to Laura, jerked her roughly to her feet. She swayed and could not stand. That bony face before her seemed alive with the wisdom of age, but something in those deep, shadowed eyes sent her heart hammering madly against her ribs. There was more of mercy in those drivelling maniacs in the pit than in this tall, spare, benevolent-seeming creature!
"What do you want of me?" she gasped. "What have you done to my—husband?" The word almost choked her. Frank in that pit of mindless men, dancing and leaping and shrieking... Oh God!
For a moment, the Boss stared motionlessly at the frightened girl. She tried to face him bravely but the thought of Frank made her wilt into a human pendulum, swung on the powerful arms of his minions.
"Ah, yes, your husband!" he said finally. His thin lips writhed into a fleshless smile, but the rest of his face did not move. His voice was like a rumbling echo, deep and hollow. "He will be useful to me. Already he is more a madman than the others. It took very little of the precious serum to blast his reason loose from his mind. Look at him, my dear, and see how he recognizes you!"
They swung her around on dragging feet to face the pit. The smooth, funnel-like depression became a bedlam of noise and clamor. The maniacs leaped high against their chains at the sight of her; raging lust inflamed their bestial countenances, dragged delirious howls from their maddened throats. And—"Dear God in Heaven, let me die now," she prayed—her husband leaped and yelled with the rest. His eyes glared at her without recognition, and his chains were a frenzy of clangor as they dragged him back from his jumpings.
"There you are, my dear," the Boss cackled. "He is indeed a prize. I'm sure he'll be the best worker I have."
Something snapped within Laura. She tore loose from the restraining arms, she jumped screaming and clawing for the beast who taunted her.
"You vile, filthy creature!" she shrieked. "You've made animals of men; you've made a living Hell for my husband. But you—you shall die!"
Her clawing fingers raked for his face. He jumped back with an oath of rage. His lean fingers plucked under his shroud, came out with a short, scimitar-like blade. She hurled herself forward again, ready to transfix herself upon the knife, if only she could reach that devilish countenance.
But the two henchmen were upon her. They caught her plunging form by the arms, wrenched backward until they almost tore them out of their sockets. Sobbing, gasping, whimpering, Laura glared with half-mad eyes at the Boss.
There was unutterable evil about his lips and in the blazing depths of his eyes. He fingered his blade meaningly. For one moment, it seemed as if he would drive it into her loud-clamoring heart. Then his eyes flicked past her to the pit, where the madmen were yammering more horribly than ever. His lips curled sinisterly.
"That would be the cream of the jest," he said thinly. He thrust back his head and laughed. That bloodless laugh sent chills down Laura's back, shriveled her heart to a small, motionless ball.
"Exactly," he nodded with self-satisfaction. "It will be great sport. I should have thought of that before. Now, listen to me, you little she-devil. Listen and faint with very terror. Know what I am doing before you—die!"
The significant pause before that final word, dreadful enough by itself, whipped the madness from her brain, brought in its place crawling maggots of fear.
"I have found in the depths of Superstition Mountain rich deposits of radium ore, the richest in the world. It was I who discovered the tunnels and caverns that lead all the way to the top where we now are standing. But the mountain belongs to some one else. He would not sell. So I am mining the ore in spite of him." He laughed horribly.
"Radium is terribly dangerous," he continued. "It burns the flesh away, it rots the bones. My men and myself use leaden helmets and lead-impregnated clothes when we descend into the caverns where the pitchblende lode is to be found. But they are clumsy, and it is impossible to work in them. Besides, I needed more hands for the work, and I dared not trust any one else. So I thought of a scheme."
He paused while Laura almost fainted with loathing, with dread of what he was going to say.
"If I could make men into maniacs, mindless creatures to obey my will, it would serve a double purpose. They would not know the danger and would mine the ore for me. Nor could they betray the secret, if they broke away and escaped. I obtained a certain serum, known only to an ancient Indian medicine man that was guaranteed to drive men mad if given in doses at definite intervals. It worked!" How the beast gloated over his fiendish scheme!
"Already they have mined enough to make me a millionaire. But I want more. I want to be the richest, most powerful man in the world. And I shall!" An insane light glared in his eyes. "Another month of toil with this fresh supply of wretches and there will be enough."
"But the poor creatures you have tortured," Laura burst out. "What happens to them?"
He was unutterably evil now. "They—die! A month of toil in the mine and they gangrene and rot away, flesh and bones and all, from the radium emanations. It is not a pleasant death. They scream and beg for death to come, but it delays." He thrust his snarling lips close to the panting girl. "Your husband will scream louder than the rest."
Iron bands compressed around Laura's skull. "You damnable fiend!" she panted, struggling in the iron grip of the thugs.
The Boss leered down at her. "But you haven't heard the rest of my plan. It concerns you!"
"Kill me!" she gasped. "I—don't—care—any more."
"I shall not kill you," he said slowly, leaning forward to observe the full effect of his dreadful words! "Your husband shall kill you—he and his lovely mates. I shall throw you into the pit with them!"
FOR a moment, her squeezing brain did not understand. Then red ruin exploded in her skull. It could not be, it was impossible! No human being—not even the Foul Fiend himself—could have conceived such a frightful torture. To be torn apart, limb from limb, by howling, slobbering maniacs; to be broken and twisted and wrenched into blood-soaked shreds of flesh by Frank, no longer the man of her love, but a ravening, lusting madman! Almighty God! Can You allow such things to be?
She felt herself jerked forward. Her feet dragged desperately against the bare, flat rock, seeking footholds. Her head lolled to one side. The thugs were forcing her to the pit.
There, at the very edge, they paused. Behind them towered the Boss, his grey baldness bloody with the light of the fire. He pointed downward toward the mad crew with his knife.
"Throw her in!"
For one desperate moment, she hung on the brink. She screamed, she begged, she implored for mercy. But Hell itself was not more cold, more merciless, than these fiends in human form, than those lusting, mindless creatures of the pit.
They leaped like slavering dogs against their manacles, tongues lolling from drooling lips at the sight of her. And Frank leaped higher than the rest. His eyes were blank and staring; his voice was a senseless screech.
"Look how her husband welcomes her," the Boss chuckled hideously. "Let us not stand in the way of such true love. Throw her down into his arms."
"No! No!" Laura moaned in frenzy. She threw back her head and the scream of snapping reason tore her throat to pieces. Her feet slid along the smooth rock. She was being forced inexorably over. A last desperate attempt at a toehold, and she was going... going...!
The last thing she saw was the eager clutch of her husband's unmanacled arm, and then she went down the smooth side, sliding and tumbling.
Hands gripped at her, tore with frenzied claws at her clothes, ripped them into fluttering strips. Mad fingers raked down her smooth, soft sides, wrenched at arms and legs. Pain lanced through every nerve and quivering muscle. Hot, snarling breaths beat with fetid effluvia about her face; unhuman faces leered into hers and dropped suddenly out of sight.
Fists and arms and legs and clanking chains whirled round and round her tortured form in a kaleidoscope of distributing parts. Shrieks of pain rose from the mindless wretches, yells of rage, and howls of agony. Suddenly she was alone, crouched, fainting and bleeding, at the farther end of the pit.
In front of her was a mass of heaving, flailing maniacs. Fists lashed out and crunched home against bone and smearing flesh. Oh God, she moaned to herself, they are fighting over me! Soon it will be over and the victors will come...!
But there was something wrong. The Boss, who had grinned fiendishly down upon the struggle, now shouted orders. His henchmen moved carefully around the edge, trying to get to her. The Boss ran to the fire, raced back with his huge, black whip. He snaked it crackling through the air. But the madmen paid no heed.
With a snarl, he aimed the lashing leather at the head of one who seemed the very head and center of the riot. He ducked, and it wound itself like a coiling python around the neck of a maniac who was in the very act of striking him down with manacled arm. He screamed horribly, gurgled, and dropped out of sight under the trampling mass.
The madman who had ducked, lashed out again with two unencumbered fists. A brutish face disappeared, and bone cracked audibly on another. He turned his sweaty, thin-etched features toward Laura.
She jumped from her terrified crouch. It was Frank, and he was grinning. That old-time grin she knew so well. His eyes flicked understanding warning; then a rush of infuriated maniacs bore down upon him. He submerged like a racing boat under tons of water. There was a violent, swirling commotion, over which the Boss teetered vainly, holding his whip poised. His face was hideous with rage, yet he dared not strike indiscriminately. Already had he killed one of his precious, mindless workers.
Laura shrieked high above the uproar. Frank was not mad! He was sane, sane as she was! But it was no use. The others were upon him, they would tear him to pieces even as they would her when they were through. She jumped madly forward, just as a straining hand reached for her shoulder from above—and missed!
She clawed, kicked, pulled at the ravening throng. They were killing Frank, they were...!
The snarling, yelping pack heaved upward and outward in all directions. Frank's bloody head emerged like a yacht shouldering the waves apart. He was bleeding from innumerable gashes, but still he grinned. He caught sight of Laura, slammed his way to her side.
"Okay, darling!" he panted. "If only we can duck those fellows above—"
The Boss let out a blasting roar of rage. He slashed out with his great black whip, straight for Frank's head.
"Look out!" Laura screamed, dragging her husband down. The lash whistled sharply through the air, inches above his face. The scattered madmen bunched and came on, throwing themselves to the limits of their chains.
But the Boss was a snarling, raging beast, mad even as they. He smashed downward again, leaning far over the pit in his eagerness to catch this man who had pretended to be mad and was spoiling all his careful plans.
The heavy whip snaked out, caught him off balance. For a long moment, he teetered on the very brink, while his henchmen rushed with alarmed cries to catch him. But it was too late!
With a wild, eerie screech he slipped down the smooth rock sides, into the very midst of the blood-lusting men he had made into madmen. A huge, hairy arm reached out, grabbed him by the body, bore him under. His long, thin hand worked madly at his clumsy shroud. A pistol gleamed underneath; he had tugged it half out when the avalanche swept over him. Then nothing showed but a snarling, yelping eddy of brawny bodies.
The thugs on the edge of the pit drew back in horror. Guns appeared in their hands. Again and again they fired into the squirming, swarming mass.
Frank caught Laura, dragged her to the extreme end, where the fire-reflection did not penetrate. Desperately he tried to hoist himself up, but there was no purchase. He slipped and went down again.
"Sorry, Laura," he breathed heavily. "But I'm afraid it's no go. They'll finish off those poor devils and then come for us."
She smiled bravely back, trying not to let him see the ache in her heart. She had found her husband again, and now they were both lost.
The sharp crack of the guns punctured the screams of the dying. Then there were no further yells, and the firing ceased. For one dreadful moment, there was silence.
As they crouched deeper into the shadows, away from the flickering ruddiness of the flames, they saw the motionless mass of legs and arms and distorted torsos of those who had been driven to horrible madness, and who now were dead.
"They're better off, poor things," Laura whispered. "But we—?"
"The Boss's men will get us," Frank said grimly. Laura clung to his dear, wounded body with aching love. Fear clutched her heart. There was no escape.
See, there they were, coming to look for them, to make sure everything was over. Feet boomed hollowly on the rock. "Seems like they're all dead," said one.
"Whew!" shuddered the other. "I seen terrible stuff in my day, but nothin' like this. An' the Boss—he's gone. What're we gonna do?"
"Do?" echoed the first thug sarcastically. "Man, it's a cinch! Now we got all that stuff fer ourselves. We'll slip it out tonight, and we'll get those thousand grands the Boss was always beefin' about."
"Say!" cried the other in alarm. "Nix. We dassn't touch it. Remember what it did t' the first batch o' loonies?"
"Su-ure, that's right! Mebbe some of those bozos in the pit ain't dead yet. We'll use 'em."
Two figures loomed over the hole, guns snouting. Frank and Laura pressed against the sides, held themselves moveless. But they had been seen.
"Come out, you there!" one shouted exultantly.
"No, no!" Laura whimpered. "I'd rather die now than—"
Frank cried defiantly. "We won't do your hellish work!"
"Okay, feller," the thug grinned. The fiery shadows made him a horned devil out of Hell. "Say yuhr prayers, then. I'll kill yuh and grab the girl." He raised his gun deliberately, took aim.
Laura shrieked and threw herself before her husband. "You'll have to kill me too!"
The thug licked his lips at the sight of her slenderness under the remaining shreds of garments. "Not on your life, girlie. Hey, Jerry!" he raised his voice. "You shoot him, but don't hit the girl. We need her."
"It's no use," Frank said gently. "Break away, Laura darling. Let them shoot. But get to the body of the Boss. He had a gun. Use it on yourself if necessary."
"Okay, let 'im have it."
Frank squared his shoulders, while Laura dropped in a faint. Two shots rang out. For a split second, he stood in a daze. Why hadn't those bullets torn through his body? Then he saw the two gunmen totter and go crashing to the rock.
There were shouts, cries and the thudding of many feet. Then Frank too drifted into the black sea of oblivion.
When Laura awoke it was to find herself in Frank's arms, swathed in bandages. His face was pale and drawn, and one arm was in a sling, but his grin was warming. Dr. Carey was bending over her, busy with the last bandage.
"There, you're all right now," he said. His rubicund face was shiny and flushed in the firelight. Lem, the village cobbler, glowered at his side. Other men of the village crowded in the background, muttering and whispering excitedly.
"We'll split the cache of radium between us," Frank was insisting. "I've got your contract to sell the mountain, of course, but you didn't know at the time what it was worth."
The doctor hesitated, smiled. "All right, if you feel that way."
Laura snuggled closer. "I—I don't understand," she said, bewildered.
Frank grinned. "I closed the deal in the village. I didn't tell you, but that was why I made a flying trip to New York. I had a sample of ore I picked up at the base of the mountain that I wanted analyzed. Looked like pitchblende to me, and that was what the chemist said. Where there is pitchblende, there is sometimes radium. I took the chance. But someone else had discovered the secret before me, and tried to buy the place."
"I wouldn't sell to him," Dr. Carey interrupted. "He had cheated me in a deal years before and I swore then never to do business with him again."
Frank's jaw hardened. "So he concocted this scheme—the vilest, most devilish since the world began. He caught me with his drove of madmen as I was coming back from the village. Evidently some of them had died, and he needed new recruits. He jabbed the needle into me. I fought off the effect, but pretended I was just as mad as the rest. Up here, I learned his plans but then I could do nothing. I waited for my chance and it never came. I had slipped my manacles, but left them on with the spring open. Then, darling, you came." Frank's eyes clouded. "I'll never want to go through that again. We have Dr. Carey to thank for coming in the nick of time. How did you find out about this?"
The doctor smiled modestly. "I had been suspicious about disappearances around here for some time. I found a trampled trail that led to the rubbly base above the road. I watched there after Laura told me you were gone too, but saw nothing. I hurried over to your house, heard the rest of Laura's story, and went back for a more thorough search. Then I saw Laura running up the mountain, with Lem after her. I had warned Lem to watch her while I was gone. Lem got scared and ran back, but from my hiding place I saw Laura seized by a shrouded being who was—er—the man called the Boss. He seemed to disappear into the ground."
Dr. Carey took a breath and went on. "I hurried back to the village, raised the folk, and came back as fast as I could. But tell me, Frank—if you managed to break away from the chain-gang once in the woods, why did you return?"
Frank grinned sheepishly. "I wanted to warn Laura away, and yet not get a posse on my trail. You see, I hadn't learned a thing then as to what it was all about. I was afraid they'd get away, so I stuck along."
Laura squeezed his arm reproachfully. "But who," she asked suddenly, "was the devil who called himself the Boss?"
"Come," Frank said, lifting her to her feet. They hobbled painfully to the fire.
On the ground were rows of bodies. The madmen stared peacefully up at the stars, all their induced insanity wiped clean from their faces. But the solitary figure that lay to one side was twisted in demoniac hate. The high, bald head was punctured and thrown to one side. The bushy brows were half-ripped off and reddened with blood. Beneath the disguise were the unmistakable features of Sheriff Tom Beasley!
Laura shiversed with cold as Frank led her gently away...
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