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Title: The Hound of Hell Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304751h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Dec 2015 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 eerie threat hung over Oaklake like a fog of ghastly horror? Why did the dogs—the aristocratic wolfhounds and the scrubby mongrels—form a murder-pack that bayed its terror in the dark of the moon? Who laid the Curse of the Dogs on the rich men who dwelt in that small community? What grim, ungodly power was nightly forcing more honest men to make age-old bargain with the Devil...
"I AM convinced," Rennold Forson said heavily, "that there is something definitely wrong in Oaklake." He stood, tall and thin, in the center of the living room, and there was a queer glow in his narrow, piercing eyes. "Some strange peril hangs over our little community like a cloud; the fear of some weird, uncanny evil is creeping into every home, touching every life. I am worried for you, my dear, living out here on the edge of the town, alone and unprotected."
Sandra Crane appeared slender, fragile, sitting in the deep chair near the window. "I am not afraid," her tired contralto responded. "Not at all afraid."
"I don't get you," Wally Leeds drawled, his gangling, loose-jointed frame slouched on the sofa. "You aren't really jittery over the gossip of a few shopkeepers and the howling of a dog at night? That's all there is to the whole thing!"
Forson's sharp-edged, pointed features turned to the youth. His thin lips twitched in what might have been a humorless, saturnine smile. "Gossip! A dozen people have seen the dog—a shadowy beast skulking through the fields at night. They say that his eyes glow with a red fire that strikes terror into them, as if the devil himself were glaring at them."
"Imagination, aided by one or two too many drinks at the Seven Gables!"
"Oh, of course." The older man made no effort to disguise the animosity in his tone. "You can explain anything by that. It might even account for the fact that night before last, when the Talmadges' cottage caught fire at two in the morning, only about five of the volunteers answered the alarm, and that the rest of the company refused to explain where they had been, except that they were not at home."
"I was talking to Father Fasey today," Forson continued. "He tells me his congregation has dropped off about half, and that even of those who attend Mass, only one man has accepted Communion in weeks. He is quite convinced that Satan has invaded Oaklake and he intends to exorcise him next Sunday."
Somehow, as he said that, the atmosphere of uneasy dread he had managed to create in the little parlor deepened. The beaming, rotund little priest was very wise. If he put so great stress on the whisperings...
"Faugh. I can't stand this sort of talk." Wally pushed himself to his feet, jerked around to Sandra. "Good-night, Miss Crane. I'm going home and try to write." He flung himself out through the curtained archway into the foyer.
Forson's lip curled. "Good riddance. I can't see how you stand him around."
A fleeting smile illuminated the girl's wan features. "He is a trifle gauche. But then he's had an awful struggle, writing for years and not selling a thing. I think..."
"Oh, let's forget him!" The man lunged across the room, towered above Sandra. "I can say what I want to, now that he's gone. Sandra, my dear! Why won't you consent to marry me at once? Why won't you give me the right to protect you?"
"To protect me? Against what?"
"Oh, Good Lord! Haven't you been listening to me at all? Don't you remember what your father said to us, with the grey of death masking his face?" Forson's voice was tortured; he was quivering. "Sandra! He was already almost in that Other World when he spoke those last words. A knowledge not given to living men must already have been filtering into his soul. He begged you not to wait because of mourning; he begged you to marry me at once! Have you forgotten?"
The girl was erect now. Her brown eyes were deep, somber wells.
"I remember." She made a little, helpless gesture. "But I can't. Not yet. Oh, Rennold, not yet!"
"Darling! There is danger abroad. Some horrible, foul danger whose nature we do not know. But your father knew, when he gasped out, 'I want to feel that you are safe, dear!' and died."
"Safe!" Sandra jerked it out. "Why shouldn't I be safe here? With Alice, and—and Scratch? Father gave me Scratch to protect me!"
Forson twisted away from her, twisted back. "Scratch!" His face writhed with some obscure emotion. "Sandra! I didn't want to point it out before, but it is Scratch himself whom I fear—for you. The hound that haunts the night is black, and the only black dog in town is—Scratch!"
There was a moment's silence, tense, quivering. It was broken by a moan from the girl, a low moan: "No! I can't believe it! Scratch loves me. He would give his life for me; certainly he would never hurt me."
"Believe it or not, that dog is dangerous!" Forson flung the words at her, virulent.
Sandra had recovered herself. "Dangerous! You—you're insane. All you have to do is watch his eyes when he looks at me. I'll prove it to you." She turned to a second door, one that opened into the pantry, thence to the kitchen. "Alice," she called. "Alice!"
Alice Bolt waited a minute before she opened that door. It was love for Miss Sandra that had made an eavesdropper of her, but that might not be understood. Then: "Yes! Yes. Miss Sandra."
"By the stove in the kitchen."
"Let him come in. Here, Scratch! Scratch!"
Claws rattled on the stone floor of the pantry; a furry body pushed past the meager, grey-haired domestic. A collie entered the living room, sleek-haired, big-headed, completely black. He paused, wagging a bushy tail.
"Come here. Scratch. It's all right for you to come in here tonight. Come here, boy." Sandra's tones were tender, caressing. "Come here!"
The dog started across to her, his tail still wagging. Forson moved restively. And suddenly the collie stopped. His fur seemed to bristle, his neck to swell to twice its natural size. His great head dropped to the ground, his lips retracted. He was snarling, growling; his eyes, fixed on the girl, were red and baleful.
"Scratch!" It was almost a scream. "Scratch! What is it? What's the matter?"
His mistress' voice seemed to infuriate the brute. He howled, leaped, jaws open, white fangs gleaming, straight for her throat! Forson threw himself at Sandra, struck her, tumbled to the floor with her. The dog shot over them, landed heavily on the couch, scrambled for a foothold. Then he was gone, through the open window beneath which the sofa stretched; gone into the night!
White-faced, trembling, Sandra regained her feet. "It isn't true," she moaned. "It isn't true! Rennold! It's just as if—as if you had turned against me—or Dad! Dad gave him to me...He's sick. He must be sick!"
"Or possessed," Forson supplied, white-lipped, shaken. "Or possessed by—the spirit of the devil himself!"
The tip of Alice Bolt's nose twitched, rabbit-like, and her acidulous voice whipped stridently through the aseptic whiteness of Oaklake's Meat Market. "The idea!" she shrilled. "The idea of sending us chops like these when you know Miss Sandra's clean distracted, what with her father not yet cold in his grave, so to speak, and Scratch missing for two days!"
"Scratch?" Oscar Johnson's china-blue eyes blinked from the pink roundness of his face. "Scratch?"
Miss Bolt sniffed. That was his way of sliding from under an argument—to get people talking about something else. "You know very well who Scratch is—Miss Sandra's black collie that her father gave her just before he took to his deathbed. The dog's gone; no one knows where. I declare, the Prescotts' Mamie was right when she said Satan himself has got into this town!"
Johnson grunted, as though he had been dealt a body blow. Those little eyes of his were suddenly gone white. "Satan!" Then, pulling himself together by what was evidently a tremendous effort, he blurted: "Ach. I don't feel so very good. Excuse me please."
He gestured weakly to his clerk to finish the transaction with Miss Bolt, tottered away to vanish in the mysterious back precincts of his shop.
Carl shrugged. "I don't know what's the matter with him these couple of weeks. He comes in bleary-eyed in the morning, like as if he hadn't slept at all. An' he's kicked out all the dogs he used to keep in the backyard here. Just plain kicked 'em out in the street one morning. I heard him yellin' like he was crazy: 'Raus! 'Raus! I vill feed no beasts from der defil!' "
As Miss Bolt came out under the timber-and-stucco balcony with which the butcher store tried to disguise itself as a Tudor tavern, cold, feathery hands brushed her spine. She tried to shake herself free of the uneasiness that had clung to her since the night Scratch had acted so strangely and then vanished. It had been growing, more and more, as strange things kept happening in the little suburban community. Eerie things, like the big man the children insisted they kept seeing peering out of trees on the other side of the railroad tracks, where nobody except adventuresome children ever went. "The giant with a dead face," they called him.
Station Square didn't look as if there were anything wrong, though. The six-three train was due in a few minutes and all along the curbing were parked cars, waiting for the homing commuters. Ginghamed young wives in Fords and Chevvies, frilled and furbelowed matrons in Buicks and Reos, whip-corded chauffeurs in Caddies and Lincolns, all craned eyes and ears to the gleaming rails toward the south where, if it were not dusk, one might almost see the towers of Big City.
And the dogs! Oaklake was known up and down the Northchester Branch as a doggy town. No wonder, when, every evening, passing commuters looked out on a depot plaza alive like this with a motley, yapping congregation ranging from Roger Meadows' Great Dane to the sundry squealing mongrels whom nobody claimed. It was all a cheerful scene, somehow, quenching Miss Bolt's uneasiness. She...
The vibrant hoot of a locomotive, the thunder of its drivers, drowned out her thoughts. Hiss of escaping steam blended with a murmur sweeping the plaza. Feminine hands fluttered to compacts. Feminine complexions received a final deft dabbing of powder. Canine feet pattered. Hairy, canine bodies clotted around a high, iron-barred gate where a sign said: "Exit Only." The barks crescendoed to a fury of welcome.
A big-framed chap plunged out of the stone-lined underpass, thrust his shoulder against bars, swung open the gate, came through. And suddenly the dogs surged away from before the man Alice recognized as John Stark!
But they weren't making a path for him, nor were they running away. They were backing! They were retreating stiff—legged, and their necks were bristling. Their lips were curling to expose black gums and white, pointed teeth. Nor were they yapping any longer. Low, vibrant growls came from deep in their chests, half-hushed fierce growls that were yet, somehow—afraid!
Miss Bolt's throat was suddenly dry, and her spine cold. Light seemed to have drained out of the plaza, leaving a queer greyness. There was no sound except the dogs' low snarling; no motion except the two or three plunging steps John Stark took before he froze, just in the center of the circle the dogs had made.
In that baroque plaza, under the eyes of a half-hundred sleek, smug suburbanites, Stark appeared weirdly as a lonely, primeval figure, encircled by the slavering jowls of the wild dog pack; by their jowls and their lowering eyes that were lurid with a strange conflict of bestial hate and dreadful fear. Those long, shaggy heads dropped lower, lower...
"They don't see him as we do," Miss Bolt half-thought, half-whispered. "They see something we can't—something a dog always sees when the fire drops low and the wind howls outside." She was quivering inwardly, was taut with an almost unbearable expectation, as if it were a tense moment of suspense on some theater stage. It was as if some master playwright had piled emotion on emotion to an insupportable pitch and the instant of climax was at hand—as if something more must come!
And it did come! It crashed out into the taut silence with a thunder like the voice of Fate itself—a sourceless bellow, wordless at first, then instantly clear and distinct—and fearful! "The Curse of the Dogs is on you, John Stark. You cannot escape!" It roared the threat, sonorous, awesome, and cut off again. Vibrant silence clamped down...
A woman in the crowd screamed. Without looking Alice knew it was May Stark, John's wife. The shrill sound sliced across the quivering hush like a knife-edge. It cut the unnatural spell leashing the dogs. The circle of them moved apart; the dogs were spectral figures flitting into the dusk. Lights flashed on, street lamps, headlights. Home-comers gushed out through the iron-barred gate. The train thundered away.
The Square was a sudden pandemonium of sound; of screaming women, shouting men. May Stark's shriek had released the watchers from the paralysis of fear, but it had not released them from fear itself. White faces, staring eyes, appeared in the glare of headlights—in the fanned-down cones of light from tall light-poles—and disappeared. A knot of friends formed around Stark; another around the Reo toward which he moved. Men dashed aimlessly about, looking for the source of that blasting Voice, looking for—they themselves knew not what.
Miss Bolt stood stark still in front of Johnson's market. She saw a stealthy figure sliding out of a dark store-vestibule. She was about to call out, but checked herself. Her brow furrowed as she watched Wally Leeds lose himself in the milling mob.
Despite the glaring, new lamps of which the Town Council was so proud, a dark shadow seemed somehow to lie on the Square. It spread its veil of queasy dread over the twinkling lights of the trim community located on the gentle hills sloping up from the railroad. It was within Miss Bolt, within her very brain. She shuddered...
Somewhere in the darkness, far off, a dog bayed; his howl was hollow, melancholy, menacing...
"ALICE!" Sandra Crane gasped, wheeling from the window whose high embrasure emphasized her dainty fragility. "Didn't that sound like Scratch?" Her small hand pulsed to the throb of the young, firm breasts against which it was pressed. "Listen! There it is once more!"
Somewhere in the outer darkness, far off, a dog bayed; his howl hollow, melancholy, menacing.
The spring night was warm, but a chill ran through Miss Bolt. She looked up from where she was meticulously placing scarf and candlesticks on the drop-leaf table that, dinner being over, she had folded to shove against the wall. "Seems crazy to me," she said with the privilege of long service, "for you to be worrying so about that dog after what he almost did to you. I call it good riddance of bad rubbage!"
"Rubbage!" The girl's limpid eyes were big in the lamplight, were shimmering with unshed tears. "Scratch!" She took a slow step into the room. "How can you say that when you know how much he's meant to me since father—left? Don't you understand? Haven't you seen it, deep down in Scratch's eyes—that look of affection, of devotion, of—yes—of love?"
"Oh, I know it sounds queer, but it's true. True! When he turned on me, like that, and went, the last bit of warmth seemed to go out of the house and out of me, with him. The last, little bit! Oh, Alice...!" A sob choked her. "He is out somewhere in the dark; sick, dying!"
Miss Bolt tucked a wisp of drab hair behind her ear. The action hid her suddenly misted eyes, so that there was nothing to belie the sour petulance of her voice. "Well," she sniffed, "mooning at the window ain't going to bring him back. Wally Leeds has been out day and night looking for him, and Mr. Forson—" she paused imperceptibly, and almost imperceptibly, her tone was dryer when she went on, "—has put an ad in the paper."
There was a sudden eager wonder in Sandra's eyes. "Alice! Why is Mr. Leeds doing that for me? He—"
"Might as well be tramping in the fields as cooped up in a little room scribbling. He'll gain no more doing one than the other." Miss Bolt's nose tip twitched. "Seems like you ought to see—" Her fleshless lips cut off the phrase.
"I ought to see what? What, Alice?" There was a strange light in Sandra's face. "What were you going to say?"
"Nothing," the older woman snapped pettishly. "I can't be standing here chattering when there's all the supper dishes yet to do." She flounced to a swinging door, pushed through it, across a narrow pantry and into the tiled kitchen. "No fool like an old fool," she muttered. "At your age, Alice Bolt, you ought to know enough to keep your mouth shut."
Dishes rattled fiercely; water soughed into a sink basin. But Miss Bolt's mind was not on the mechanical energy of her deft hands. She was revisualizing the scene in the Station Plaza, sensing again the eerie thrill that had shaken her as that mysterious voice had sounded. It had seemed to come from everywhere at once, and from nowhere, emphasizing with added terror John Stark's lonely figure and the dogs that baited him. What was it Wally Leeds had been about so furtively just at that instant?
The nape of Alice's neck prickled. She was suddenly taut, a soup plate poised half out of hissing suds. A sound had reached her from behind, a muffled thud, as of a stealthy footfall on the back porch. There it was again, right at the back door! Miss Bolt managed to turn, slowly, fighting the rigidity of fear-tensed muscles. She was staring at the blank surface of that door, at its knob of white porcelain.
The knob was turning, slowly, soundlessly. The woman's hand drifted behind her, to the sink against which she leaned. Bony fingers tightened on the handle of a carving knife. With a tiny click, the latch was free of its slot, and the portal was drifting inward.
Fabric slithered against wood. The slit between door-edge and jamb widened, and startlingly, a window-curtain fluttered. Miss Bolt's eyes flicked to it uncontrollably, flicked back to the door. The side of a man's body showed in the opening.
"Sssh!" a furtive voice hissed. "Alice! Quiet!"
Miss Bolt gulped. "Mister Leeds!"
Wally slid into the room. His glance darted to the passage to the living room. "In there?" he whispered.
"Yes. She'll not come in." The humor was gone from Wally's pinched face. It was drawn, pale. There was no longer any smile in his brown eyes; in their darkened depths a black flame glowed. "Mr. Leeds!" Her voice, though low, was sharp, startled. "What's the matter? What's happened? Scratch?"
Leeds reached for a chair-back. Held on to it. Swayed. "No! I don't know! I—don't—know!"
That look of his! Misery in it, and horror, and—dread!
"For the love of Goodness!" Miss Bolt jerked out. "Don't stand there like that, mumbling! What is it?"
Wally straightened with an effort. "I just saw—John Stark. Lying in front of his garage. His face!" Wally's sensitive features twisted. "God! He must have seen something—diabolic—just before he died!"
"Dead!" Miss Bolt's exclamation was a breath-gust. The strength was suddenly out of her legs. "Not—the—Curse—?"
"His arm was thrown up across his throat," Wally gabbled, words coming from between his colorless lips, "as if to protect it. But there wasn't a mark on him. Not a mark, Alice, except a little scratch on his wrist. That was still oozing blood, but it couldn't have killed him. It couldn't!"
The woman thought of the dog that had howled. "What did, then?"
The young man shook his head, dumbly, miserably. "I was—searching—through the fields behind Stark's place when John—screamed! The sound wasn't loud, but it was penetrating and—" a long quiver shook him, "—horrible. If you've never heard a strong man scream—"
His blanched lips worked soundlessly for an instant. Fingers of dread tightened at Miss Bolt's throat. He was trying to say something more, something that affected this house...
"Then—there was a threshing noise in the bushes between me and Stark's. Something was coming toward me. It showed for an instant in a small clearing, vanished again. It was a black shape, running. A black animal, Alice! That was all I could see. But right after that a dog howled in the shadows. Twice!"
"A dog!" Miss Bolt's skin crawled. She too had heard that dog howl. Was Miss Sandra right? Was it Scratch? She forced her eyes to meet Wally's and read the same awful surmise there. "No!" she squeezed through her constricted larynx. "No! It can't be. It would—kill—her."
The young man's mouth worked. "I've got to—find him," he gasped, "and—make sure." He pushed himself away from the chair to which he had been holding, started for the door. He reeled, would have fallen if Miss Bolt had not sprung to him, catching him by the arm.
"Mister Leeds! You're—hurt!"
His effort at a smile was pathetic. "No. Not hurt! Weak. I'm sorry. I'll be—all right—"
"Weak!" A light flashed on the woman. "You're hungry. When did you eat last?"
"Eat. Eat!" His voice shrilled, cracked. "Three—four days ago, maybe. I can't remember."
Miss Bolt's nose twitched. "You fool! You arrant ass! And me just about to throw out a pot of soup and a perfectly good chop! Sit down while I get them warmed!"
"No! No. I can't. She...I can't have her know that I..."
"She won't. Listen!"
The deep thrum of a powerful motor was like the distant thunder of some doom, approaching the house. Wally's hand clenched into a fist, and the look with which he sought the woman's understanding was agonized, hopeless. The motor sound crescendoed, coughed to silence. A horn blared.
Miss Bolt turned on a light under the soup pot on the range. "Watch that it don't burn," she whispered. "And don't let his being here spoil your appetite."
"Priinng!" the doorbell on the wall rasped her nerves. "Priinng!"
"Miss Sandra in the living room?" Rennold Forson asked brusquely. He thrust a hat and pigskin gauntlets at Miss Bolt, his glance wholly impersonal.
Her nose twitched as she looked up and down a figure whose almost painful emaciation even expert tailoring could not disguise. "Yes. Yes, Mr. Forson." The disapproval in her dry voice was not insolence. Not quite. "I expect she's waiting for you."
He wheeled, thrust aside the drapes curtaining the archway to the living-room, at the left of the foyer. Oddly, his steps made no sound on the parquet as he went through, as the curtains dropped behind him, swaying.
"My dear!" His words rustled crisply, even through the muffling fabric. "I'm late. Sorry!"
"Rennold!" There was no warmth in Miss Sandra's greeting. "Have you any news?"
"No, my dear. No one has replied to my advertisement. You will have to make up your mind that you will never see Scratch again." The man's voice paused, went on, meaningfully. "And you may thank your God for that!"
"Ohhh!" It was a shocked, protesting cry. "What do you mean?"
Forson's tone was clipped, hard. "You know very well what I mean, Sandra!" He spoke slowly, emphatically. "If that hound ever comes back here you will be in deadly peril. Far more deadly than you can possibly understand!"
Miss Bolt was suddenly cold all over. That had sounded more like a threat than a warning. A threat! Did Forson know what Wally Leeds had seen right after John Stark's mysterious death?
He was still talking: "Listen, young lady! I am tired of being put off with all this talk of Scratch. I must have your answer, tonight, now!" His voice was no longer crisp, hard. It was a-quiver with a passion of which Miss Bolt had not believed him capable. "Night before last you did not believe me when I spoke of a menace that overhung you—that overhung every man, woman and child in this town. Tonight that menace is very real. An evil thing is abroad in the night. It howls down the wind. It strikes out of the Dark, unawares. It is Death, Sandra—and worse!"
His tones were low, awesomely hushed. They stopped now, momentarily, and in the eerie silence, Miss Bolt could hear his soft footfalls thudding across the carpet, moving nearer to Sandra. Listening, the woman's skin was a film of ice sheathing her scrawny body. Ghastly fingers probed her brain. It was as though Forson himself were the uncanny menace of which he spoke, as though he were creeping up on the girl, creeping...
"Sandra!" he husked. "I can save you from that peril. I alone. Give me the right to do it. Give yourself to me..."
There was a quick sound of a scuffle. Then: "No!" The girl's voice lashed out, suddenly shrill, suddenly thin and hating. "Never! I know you now for what you are." Her cry was edged with hysteria. "Get out! Get out of this house!"
Miss Bolt clawed for the drapes, hesitated, sprang back into the darkness of the passage to the kitchen as quick, sharp footfalls came toward her. "The—the beast!" she ripped out, breathless, as Forson showed in the archway, his face a mask of dark marble, two white spots flaring on either side of his long, thin nose. How dared he...! But he had exposed his true nature. Sandra was through with him! That was something, a great deal...!
He didn't see her in the gloom. He twisted, holding the curtains apart so that she could see the girl, a waxen, pale image, only her burning eyes alive. Forson smiled slowly, the thread-like black mustache above his thin, cruel lips seeming to writhe with a strange, evil life of its own.
His voice was suave, oily-smooth once more as a veil seemed to drop over his piercing, malevolent stare. "You are ever-wrought, my dear. I shall go. But I shall return."
Sandra's white lips moved only minutely: "Never!"
"Oh, yes! I shall be back."
Once more it seemed to Miss Bolt that the man had voiced a threat. Then he was gone. The outer door thumped behind him, the crunch of his stiff-legged walk on the garden-path came dully to her ears. The whir of starter and the retreating thrum of his car followed. But somehow the weird scene of doom that sound had brought, the oppressing sense of impending evil, remained even when the car had gone...
MISS BOLT went in to Sandra, questions searing her lips. But she did not voice them, knew they would not be heard nor answered.
For an interminable moment, the two women were rigid, motionless, each thinking her own dreary thoughts. Then Sandra jerked, for all the world like a mechanical doll. "Alice," she breathed. "Please get me my blue coat. I'm going out."
"Out? Where?" Miss Bolt's heart sank. Was the girl going to follow Forson? Was the force of her father's wish still so strong?
"Anywhere! This place smothers me!"
Apprehension and dread were a leaden lump at the pit of the older woman's stomach. Fear! Two already had told of the ebon hound that ran with death.
"But you can't! You dare not go out there in the night."
A strange light smoldered under the girl's half-drooping lids. "I dare not stay here. I'm—afraid—!"
So she felt it, too! The fear closing in on this house; the whispering wings of terror hovering over it. "I'm going out!"
Miss Bolt shrugged. Instinctively she knew there was no use arguing, no way short of physical force to stop her mistress. "All right. Let's go, then."
THE Crane house was on the very outskirts of Oaklake. To the right of it were open fields; the loom of a rounded hill, suddenly grown more precipitous, silhouetted against an overcast sky that glowed with a strange, spectral light. But Sandra turned to the left, toward where the houses would cluster more and more closely. She was moving rapidly, but her feet made scarcely any sound on the road. Dark-cloaked, dark-haired, her face only a pale oval in the dimness, there was something spectral about her—something other-worldly.
Miss Bolt remembered the writings of an Irish dreamer-poet—remembered a word he had used. Fey! That was it! The girl was fey. She was temporarily under the spell of a strange ecstasy; divine, perhaps, or demoniac; in which sources of knowledge were open to her that were forever closed to the ordinary mortal. She was tapping the same occult currents to which the insects were attuned and the nocturnal birds; the prehistoric wireless that had muted their eternal voices so that the night was hushed, expectant.
The loyal servant, following silently, herself tingled with a strange exaltation; with a weird pulsation through her every fiber of—awe? Of fear so great that it was unrecognizable as fear? Shadows in the budding hedges on either side were more than shadows; were baleful, watching creatures of the dark. The twisted, gnarled branches of a familiar apple-tree were grotesque gallows from which swayed the gibbeted body of a tiny child.
It was really an oriole's pendulous nest, but Miss Bolt's frightened heart still fluttered against her ribs as she went by.
The road curved sharply to the right, but Sandra's vaguely seen figure kept straight on, through a fortuitous break in the hedge. Her progress was purposeful, direct, as though she knew exactly where she was going. She was yards ahead; the older woman could not keep up with her.
Miss Bolt's breath hissed sharply between her cold lips as an angular bulk to the right told her they were passing the Starks' cottage. That rectangular patch of yellow there was a lighted window, blotted by a shadow. The quiet shadow of a new-made widow, slumped in infinite grief.
It was here, just here, that Wally had heard the scream of a dying man, and had seen the form of an animal, of a black dog, flitting through these very bushes! The elderly woman's spine prickled, and her larynx constricted spasmodically for an abortive scream. Malevolent eyes were fixed on her, on her mistress! Someone, something, unseen, imponderable, was trailing them—had been trailing them since first this queer journey started! Instinct warned her that, the instinct of the hunted...
Footsteps thudded, footsteps out of the night! Sandra, far ahead, stopped suddenly, crouching, the blackness which marked her presence melting into the blackness of a bush. Had Miss Bolt wanted to, she could not have moved another step. A nightmare paralysis held her rigid; immobilized her every muscle.
The footsteps came nearer, thudding footsteps of a man and the pattering footfalls of a dog! Nearer still, till they were beside her, right beside her! And then they stopped, suddenly, ominously!
There was an instant's silence, quivering with nameless terror, with dread intolerable. Alice Bolt's mouth was parched; her throat rasped with unuttered shrieks. A dog's low growl sounded, infinitely menacing, in her ear. Almost in her ear. It was just the other side of this leafy tangle to her right.
Alice Bolt cringed, waiting for the hound's hot breath to blow fetid on her neck, for his white fangs to sink into her throat. The growl came again, and there was bestial threat in it, but there was also something else. A thin, quivering whine edged it that told of hackle-rising fear.
Then a man's voice broke the hush—a man's voice, husky, distorted almost out of human semblance. "Nero!" it grated. "Nero! What—what's got into you?"
The very night was crazed, pregnant with a miasma of lunatic fear that seeped from the ground like a mist, that eddied about her. It reached wan tendrils of madness into her skull. Miss Bolt knew she must see the tense drama that moved here beside her or go mad and she feared that if she did not see it she would surely go mad. She fought the steel rigidity of her neck cords, forced her head around, inch by slow inch, till she was peering through the sparse spray of hedge against which she crouched; peering through at the pale glimmer of the road that had curved back to meet her, at two dark figures starkly motionless in the middle of that road.
Each was larger by far than the wont of his race. The man, Roger Meadows, big-shouldered, big-bodied, was poised on columnar legs, visibly shuddering. The mask of his banker's face was softened to a jell of supernatural terror. The dog, an elephantine Great Dane which was a visible symbol of his owner's wealth, stood stiff-legged before him, monstrous head sunk low, blue-black lips snarled back from the white gleam of inch-long fangs, fiery red balls of menace for eyes. The two were frozen in an unforgettable tableau of mutual hate, of ancestral antagonism, of blood-curdling, marrow-chilling fear.
Once more Miss Bolt felt that she was looking on at some apotheosis of the dramaturgic art, whose stage-manager was the Antichrist. But somehow she knew that this time, the vortex of uncanny dread was plucking at her own skirts, was drawing her into it, swirling about her, and about Sandra! Not physically yet. If she could throw off this dreamlike numbness, if she could seize Sandra and flee, now, from this spot, from Oaklake itself, they might yet be safe. Safe! From what? What was the terror that stalked this hill?
Almost she did it! Almost she got free! But Nero whined, shudderingly, dragging Miss Bolt's awareness back to him, back to the road. And the precious moment of opportunity was gone, irretrievably! Her scalp was suddenly a tight cap constricting her skull. A third figure had appeared, out there, weird, spectral, incredibly awesome. The woman's reason fought to tell her that it had come from the darkness beyond the trail during that momentary withdrawal of her attention. But it was as if it had materialized from nothingness, as if it had clotted out of the fearful dark to tower there, gigantic.
For gigantic the apparition was; gruesomely shapeless in a fluttering black cloak that sheeted it from head to earth. Motionless, too, for an infinite instant of incarnate terror, and terrifyingly silent. Then it was silent no longer.
"Roger Meadows!" It was a mechanical voice, mush mouthed, intonationless, barely audible. "The Curse of the Dogs is upon you."
Meadow's head moved, just his head, so that his burning gaze was directed at the jetty giant. Along the blunt line of his jaw, muscles lumped, quivering.
"Roger Meadows!" the Voice continued, syllables thudding, one after the other, as though some mindless creature were repeating the phrases by hard-learned rote. "If you would lift the Curse of the Dogs, be at Crescent Quarry at the hour of the false dawn. Fail, and John Stark's fate will be yours!"
The banker's big frame shook, as though with an ague. Miss Bolt saw that his ham-like hand was fisting, slowly, at his side. Breath gulped from him. "You—!" It was a tight-throated squeal. "You can go—straight back—to hell!" He lunged at the apparition, his fist flailing.
And immediately he was sprawling in the dust, rolling, screaming in agony. The countering blow from the black-cloaked figure had been so swift that Miss Bolt had not seen it, but she had heard the sickening thud as it landed. And now the specter was moving away, melting into the darkness whence it had come.
"Nero!" the anguished man squealed. "Get him!"
The dog whined, snarled, barked shortly. Then it launched itself, a living catapult, a hundred and fifty pounds of bone and sinew, at the vanishing apparition. Its bared fangs glinted, its great jaws gaped, driving for where a throat must be if the monstrous thing it attacked had a throat...
This time, Miss Bolt saw the lightning outlash of a black arm, saw white fingers grasp Nero's neck. The beast's spring immobilized in mid-air, as though it had brought up against a transparent wall. Its hind quarters threshed forward, under its lithe body, flung by its own momentum. Then a spine crunched, sickeningly. The Great Dane collapsed, a limp, lifeless bundle and crashed down into the dust!
There was nothing left in the road save the flaccid, twitching, mound of the dead dog; the rolling, agonized frame of Roger Meadows, blanched now with the dust.
The ground heaved under Miss Bolt's knees. She rocked with horror. And was rigid again as a tiny patter of running feet spattered the stillness, as a black shape threshed across the road, drove a slavering, fanged jaw at Meadows' up-flung arm, leaped sidewise, snarling, and was utterly gone! It was an instantaneous flash of action. The stunned woman was not at all sure that she had seen it. Certainly she had had no clear vision of the hairy, black thing that had appeared and disappeared in the compass of a heartbeat.
But a gurgling scream from the banker pulled her to her feet, pulled her into the road. Meadows squirmed over as she reached him. She glimpsed his countenance, twisted, contorted by anguish unutterable. She knelt beside him. As her knees touched the ground he quivered; became suddenly quite still. She did not need to touch him to know that he was dead. But in his open, lifeless eyes a look of unspeakable horror remained.
She was alone, alone in the road with a dead man, a dead dog, and terror that was a living, tangible presence behind her. She twisted. There was nothing there, nothing! She was alone...
Merciful heavens! Sandra! Where was Sandra? Alice leaped erect, staring into the blinding lightlessness where the girl had merged with shadows. "Miss Sandra!" she called, frenzied.
There was no answer, utterly no answer. Miss Bolt's veins were an icy network, crawling with sluggish, freezing blood. "Sandra! Girl!"
Still nothing. Only palpitant silence quenching her frightened call.
Another slight road-curve hid the bush where Sandra had halted, minutes ago. Alice Bolt moved toward it without conscious volition. Her legs were carrying her toward that bush where last she had seen Sandra. Talons of dread tore her breast; fingers of dread twisted her brain. What would she find there? In the name of a merciful God! What lay there beneath that bush?
After an interminable period of slow progress, she reached it. Only a jumble of interlaced, thin twigs screened from her aching vision the spot where she had last seen Sandra—eighteen inches of tangle through which she could almost see. But she had to scrape the very bottom of her well of courage before she could edge around it, before she could get to the other side.
There was something there. On the ground, underneath the bush lay a limp form, veiled by the night and the bush's shadow, unmoving. Miss Bolt bent to it, licked dry lips. Her hands fumbled along the flaccid, soft pile, felt a relaxed thigh, a rounded, warm calf. It was a girl. It was Sandra!
The dark swirled around Miss Bolt. She was afraid—afraid to look further. Did she—was she? The fearful question was answered by a fluttering moan from the prostrate girl. Oh, God! Oh, thank God! She was alive!
"Alice!" a weak voice whispered. "Where are you, Alice?"
"Here, dear! Here!" The woman plumped down in the loam, held the trembling, slender form in her arms, rocked it as long ago she had rocked a weeping, motherless child in the catharsis of her first great grief. "Alice is right here with you."
"Alice. I saw Scratch. Scratch! Mr. Meadows passed with Nero. Just as they were out of sight, Scratch came along. He was creeping, almost, with his belly close to the ground, as if he were hunting them!"
A COLD breath blew once more on Miss Bolt's neck. But there was relief within her, too. The bodies she had just left were hidden from here. Sandra had not seen them, had not seen the weird tragedy that still racked her own soul with its awesome memory as a terror from beyond the Pale.
She fought steadiness into her voice. "Are you sure it was Scratch, dear?"
"Of course I am sure. I was just about to call to him when—when..." The girl's voice trailed off. A quiver ran through her.
"I—I don't know. A cold, clammy hand was suddenly across my lips, so that I couldn't call. An arm went around me. I was so—so frightened I couldn't fight. I couldn't make a sound. He—lifted me. And then there was a scream, from towards where you were, and he dropped me here, was gone. I—I think I fainted then. I can't remember anything more."
"You're not hurt, then! Miss Sandra! You're not hurt!"
"No. I—I don't think so. But who was it that grabbed me, Alice? Who was it that was going to—to carry me off?" The girl's voice shrilled with hysteria. "And what was that terrible scream?"
"I heard no scream." The impact of new horror would surely unbalance the girl's mind, rocked already by grief, by her lover's lashing, cruel accusation, by fright. "You must have imagined it!"
The thing to do was to get her home, to calm her and put her to bed. Further than that, the anxious, bewildered woman could not see.
Sandra wriggled out of her arms. "Alice! I didn't! I didn't imagine that—or the clammy hand on my mouth, either. You're keeping something from me. Scratch...!"
"Hush!" Miss Bolt snapped. "Quiet! Someone's coming." She had felt, rather than heard, a small vibration in the ground, a slither of sound, as of stealthy, approaching footfalls. Sandra's tirade cut off. There was only the quivering of her breathing, the silence of the night...
And the whisper of trodden grass was coming nearer, nearer, straight for this very spot!
MISS BOLT'S head twisted. Black against deeper black, she saw a moving shadow flitting across the field. There was no doubt about it—no doubt at all! It was coming purposefully, without deviation, without hesitation, to this bush which only they two and whoever it was that had attacked Sandra knew to be distinguished from its fellows!
He was coming back! He was coming back for the girl! Something—Miss Bolt thought she knew what it was—had balked his first attempt. He was returning for the prey from which he had been torn! Her hand slid along the ground, closed over a large stone.
He was nearer, now, almost upon them. Some trick of the skyline brought him against the eerie glow of the heavens and he was distinctly silhouetted, a black figure surprisingly slender, queasily familiar. Her fingers tightened on her pathetic weapon. This time he should not have Sandra without a fight.
Good Lord! It was Wally Leeds! He stopped, not a yard away, peered into the darkness. "Miss Crane!" he whispered, "Sandra Crane!"
What was it that drained the strength from Alice Bolt, that clutched her in its tight grip, holding her silent, unanswering? How did Wally know Sandra was here, in this open field, under this bush?
"Miss Crane!" A little more loudly, a little more sharply. His taut voice throbbing with anxiety and eagerness.
"Mr. Leeds!" The girl's exclamation tore the tension. She surged up from beside Miss Bolt, took a step into the open. "You—you...!"
The woman, too, was on her feet. "What do you want?" she snapped. "What are you doing here?"
The youth took a backward step. His face was just visible. It was pale, drawn. His lips moved. "Looking for Scratch."
"I've seen him. He..." Again a sound cut off Sandra's speech.
This time it was a bay—the deep throaty bay of a dog—from the direction of the Crane house. The three whirled. The howl was repeated, lost again in a sudden outburst of barks, of shrill yelps, multifarious, enraged. The sounds were rending the dark silence, were going away once more, as though the first dog were being pursued by the others.
"Scratch!" Sandra yelled. "It's Scratch! Come on!" She was away, dashing across the fields toward the sound. Wally was off, had caught up to her, and the two were running side by side, fleet dark figures skimming through the gloom.
Miss Bolt picked up her skirts, was following, haltingly, awkwardly. "Wait! Wait for me," she bleated, pathetically. "Oh, God! Don't leave me here alone!" She stumbled, sprawled, clawed up again. She couldn't see them any more, the girl and the youth, and the yelping of the coursing pack was far off, muted by the distance.
Tall grass lashed her ankles; brambles tore at her. She was through the hedge and on the road; she could run faster now. There was the house ahead—home! The night had swallowed Sandra. She was gone in the darkness, into the dreadful night. There was a telephone in the house. She'd 'phone the police, the sheriff. They'd beat the roads, find Sandra. Save her from...from Wally? But Wally loved her. He wouldn't harm her! Why, then, had he tried to carry her off?
Scratch loved Sandra and Scratch was a hound from Hell, slaying by a slash, a mere scratch. Sandra was in danger—in terrible danger—from those who loved her! It was mad. Everything was mad. She herself was mad. Alice Bolt's lips twisted despite herself into a grin as she jerked open the gate, pattered up the garden walk. Someone was laughing, hysterically, in the darkness. She was laughing. Oh, God! She was laughing and she couldn't stop!
Here was the door. She clawed at it, got it open. Light was around her. The foyer was lighted. She had twitched out that light herself. Or had she? She didn't know. Light blurred her vision. A hand snatched her arm and another. "Stop that laughing!" someone screamed in her ear. "Alice! Stop that laughing!"
The light whirled, burst into coruscating pin wheels of orange, green and purple flame. Then it was pitch-dark and she was falling, falling endlessly...
Miss Bolt gagged, strangled, spluttered. Ammonia fumes stung her nostrils, burned her lungs. But they cleared her brain. Her lids popped open. Sandra was bending over her, eyes burning in a face sheet-white. Wally hovered in the background. She was on the couch in the living-room, and Sandra was there. Sandra was safe!
"Alice!" Sandra cried. "Alice! Are you all right now?"
Miss Bolt's throat ached, and hammers pounded on her skull, but she pushed herself up to a sitting position, and managed to say: "Yes. All right."
"You were laughing so—so crazily—when you came in. Why were you laughing?"
Miss Bolt looked at Sandra dazedly. "Laughing? Oh, yes." She mustn't frighten Sandra. She must keep the horror of the dreadful night away from Sandra. "I was laughing at what I must have looked like, with my skirts picked up to my knees and my skinny legs twinkling as I ran after you two."
Her effort was rewarded by a tiny smile that twitched at the corners of the girl's pale lips. "It must have been very funny." She turned. "Don't you think so, Wally?"
Wally! It was the first time she had called him that to his face. Miss Bolt's heart fluttered, then stilled. But what was she thinking of? A moment ago she was crazed with fear for Sandra because she had been alone with him; now she was overjoyed because they were friends. Good Lord! If she could only find some excuse for his knowing where Sandra was, where she had been left by whoever had attacked her. She dared not ask him now. Pallid, wan as it was, something had come alive in Sandra's countenance that she dared not slay until she were sure, very sure, that it must be done.
"Funny," Wally was laughing. "It must have outdone Mack Sennett's best." But there was no gayety in his tone, and his bleak eyes were signaling over Sandra's shoulder. He had something to tell her; something the girl must not hear. Something that was twitching his long fingers, that was shaking his spare frame with an almost imperceptible ague.
Miss Bolt groaned, dropped back on the cushions. She stretched out, stiffly, and her hand jerked to her bony chest while her mouth twisted with pain. "Oh!" she gasped. "Ohhh!"
"What is it, Alice? Alice!" Sandra's cry was shrill with alarm.
"My—my heart. Drops—on dresser—upstairs."
"I'll get them!" The girl whirled out of the room.
Miss Bolt's indisposition was miraculously gone. "Well?" she snapped. "What's the story?"
Leeds came closer, his—lips writhed. "Listen!" he spurted. "You've got to look out for...!" A howl outside drowned his sentence. A yapping, insane chorus of canine fury exploded just outside the house, detonated into silence—into silence underscored by a low, shudder-some growl.
"God!" Wally swung around, plunged out through the archway drapes. Miss Bolt was after him, reached the foyer in time to see him snatch up a golf club from a bag leaning against the wall, to see him lunge out through the entrance door—to see him freeze, on the porch outside!
She was beside him. Light from behind them sprayed out across a black lawn, sprayed across a motley, weird ring on that lawn. It limned the dog pack that had coursed the darkness; picked out Airdales, terriers, Pinschers, mutts, immobile in the grip of the same eerie half-rage, half-terror that had first seized them in the Station Square...
Alice realized that she might have been looking at that same grisly horror, that same frothing circle of canine menace as had initiated demoniac death into Oaklake—and the fear of death—and the terror of some awful fate beyond death! Just as on that occasion, shaggy, sharp heads hung low between stiff legs. Just as then, fanged, slavering jaws lolled open and rubescent eyes glared mingled hate and terror. Just as then, the cold of interplanetary space robbed her limbs of movement, her brain of thought. But this doomful ring was on her very doorsteps. On Sandra's doorstep...!
And within it! Statuesque in the center of the space which threat circumscribed and terror kept clear; head high, defiant, almost majestic in his utter loneliness, was the jet-black, sleek-sided figure of Scratch!
A SHELL seemed to enclose Miss Bolt and Wally and the dogs on the lawn in a vacuum devoid of sound, of movement, of thought, of anything but chilling, paralyzing fear. Space itself was bent around them. They were isolated from the world. From God! Only Satan was here...!
And then a tiny bull-terrier whimpered, dashed out into the charmed circle, leaped at Scratch's throat. A flick of the collie's noble head, a single flash of his fangs, and the daring little bitch writhed on the ground, yelping agony. She was hidden immediately by a furry wave, by the surge of the pack she had initiated to the kill.
Pandemonium broke loose; barks, snarls, almost human screams. A furry maelstrom whirled out there on the lawn—a maelstrom of death, out of which was flung a squirming, wailing body to quiver momentarily in fierce agony, and to die. And another! The collie threw them, the collie whose black head lashed now and again out of the lethal whirlpool, teeth dripping blood, lips snarled back, demoniac. How he was fighting! How indomitably Scratch was fighting, alone, outnumbered against that ravening horde, that mad mob of canine frenzy!
But suddenly he was gone, down under them, beneath the snarling, growling ravaging Pack. The mass heaved. Miss Bolt twisted to Leeds. "Save him! Wally! For Sandra!"
The youth vaulted the porch steps. A spring brought him above that whirlpool of animal murder. The golf club swept above his head, swept down, crunched bone, crunched an anguished yelp out of that heaving mass. It lashed up, arced down; swept up, crashed down. It flashed scarlet now as if it lifted into the light-beam from the house, sprayed with a scarlet fluid. The lawn was a shambles of small, broken bodies—and startlingly, it was vacant as the Pack broke, scattered, ran...
Wally was bending to a limp, black something on the wet grass, on grass wet with blood. He straightened with the black something in his arms—a quivering black object which was the torn, bleeding body of Scratch! Scratch come home at last...!
From behind Miss Bolt, a scream shrilled. She whirled. It came again, from above, from where the narrow stairs lifted into darkness. Alice leaped for those stairs, hurtled up into the blackness from which Sandra's terrified scream sounded once more, choked off...!
DARKNESS engulfed her in the tar-barrel murk of the upper floor. But there were sounds, down the corridor, door-muffled sounds. Even as she plunged toward the room, Sandra's room, whence they came, they probed Miss Bolt's soul with gelid fingers of supernatural dread.
She reached that door, laid her hand on the knob. A queer whimpering came from behind it; a splurting, voiceless gibber intoned with a strange, quenched shrillness. It rippled Miss Bolt's skin with crawling fear, made the turning of that knob a gigantic, almost impossible task. She was afraid—ghastly afraid—to open that door—to learn what was beyond it, what had come to Sandra.
But after an eternity of grisly terror, she accomplished it. She turned that knob, got the portal moving slowly inward. Something inside resisted softly, scraped dully along the floor, whimpered, as the door opened.
A pulsating glow showed through the widening slit—a red radiance, blood red! It filled the room. It held the woman's stare and quenched it in the throbbing heart of its lurid luminance that illuminated nothing, that swallowed the chamber in a fiery, heatless hell. The black straight-edge of the door drifted across it, jagged by still another blackness in the center of that ruby nimbus...
That blackness was a cross, a two-foot-high, inverted cross! It hung in mid-radiance. From its base, a grisly stream pulsed down over the glaring focus of the light, and the pulse of its flow was the pulse of the radiance. The woman's vision cleared, and she saw that the scarlet fluid, throbbing like a grisly color-screen over the light-center, came not from the base of the devil-symbol itself but from something that was lashed to the up-ended crucifix.
That something was a tiny, squirming body! It was the still-living body of a dog, a small dog fixed on the inverted cross. The blood-stream spurted from a gaping gash in its outstretched throat. It rained down over a lamp-bulb, splashed into a tiny golden bowl, overflowed the bowl and spread across what Miss Bolt now saw was the top of Sandra's once dainty dresser. It cascaded in a thin flow to a growing pool on the floor.
Alice's body was caught in the grip of a nightmare paralysis, but her eyes could move. They could follow that awful blood-fall to the spreading, gory pool; could follow, senselessly, a long tendril from that pool creeping tenuously across the floor, toward her own feet, toward—
Its tip touched—just touched—a small, white hand whose slender fingers twitched in a curious, automatic spasm. They jerked inward to the palm, opened, jerked inward again. And the throb, throb of the light, the jerk of those pale fingers, the retching whimper from behind the door to whose knob Miss Bolt clung, all kept insane time! Throb, jerk, whimper. Throb, jerk, whimper. Throb, jerk...
Awful realization burst on the older woman. That white hand, whose fingers jerked in crazy rhythm, was Sandra's hand! It was Sandra whose soft body she had shoved aside with the opening door. Sandra lay behind it! Sandra!
A lifetime habit of service fought against hellish terror. The combat tore every shrieking cell of the woman's body, rent every protesting fragment of her with racking torment. Then love hurtled into the balance, and swung it. Love pulled her around the edge of the door, into the room that was a space carved out of Hell itself. Love bent to the flaccid, outstretched form of the whimpering girl, gathered her into quivering, frenzy-energized arms, flung out of the lurid chamber with its precious burden, fled down the corridor with her, down the steps. Love carried Sandra to the living-room couch and laid her there...
Miss Bolt slid strengthless to her knees beside the girl she had snatched from the haunts of Hell itself. The terror which had whispered all week in Oaklake, which had spoken full-throated in the Station Square and on the night-invested road where men had mysteriously died—that terror was in full cry now within this house! Men had been warned—and had died. Sandra, this frail girl upon whom her affection-starved nature had lavished a love otherwise denied, had also been warned fearfully. But it was not the Curse of the Dogs Afraid that had been placed upon her. It was another, more dreadful bane: the Curse of the Dog Crucified!
Death had come swiftly to those upon whom the first curse had been laid. Something worse than death was promised to this quivering, moaning maiden... What? In God's name, what?
"Alice!" A tiny, childish cry above her pulled Miss Bolt out of the swirling depths of nameless fear wherein she weltered. "Alice!"
"Yes, Miss Sandra! Yes, dear. Alice is here, with you." How many times had she comforted Sandra so, down through the years? "Nothing can hurt you while Alice is here!"
"Alice—I—there's something in my room. Something—dreadful!" All the beauty had gone from the girl's face. It was drawn, gaunt. Her eyes were sunk deep in dark sockets, and within their pellucid depths, little mad lights crawled.
Pity squeezed Miss Bolt's heart, and a new fear. Even if nothing more happened...
"I got your drops, and I'd just put out the light in your room when I heard noises outside, as if the dogs were back—the dogs that were chasing Scratch. I went to my own room to look out, and there was a man in there, bending over the dresser. He was huge, tremendous. He must have heard me, for he turned around and I saw his face..." She broke off, shuddering.
"Yes?" Miss Bolt encouraged timidly.
"It was horrible, like a dead man's face, like a clammy-white mask, and there was no expression in it. Not even in his eyes—in his dead eyes...! He came toward me, gliding, rather than walking, and I couldn't move, couldn't scream. His hand came out, touched me...my arm...like a hand from the grave...a voice from behind me said: "Kurt, you fool! Not here! Not yet!" Someone grabbed my arms, tried to drag me back. My foot caught in the rug. I fell, hit my head hard on the floor. It stunned me, but I could see..." She broke off again, her brow wrinkled. She pulled a shaking hand across her eyes.
Miss Bolt was quivering inwardly. "Yes!" she gasped. "What did you see?"
Sandra looked puzzled. "I—I don't know. I can't remember. It seems to me someone, not the giant imbecile but someone else whom I ought to know, bent over me and—and sprayed me with some misty liquid from an atomizer. I think I screamed then. And there was a red light in the room. It's so hazy—I saw something that tore another scream from me, and then...the rest of it's gone!" She made a helpless gesture. "Gone!"
"Never mind." Had nature mercifully drawn a veil between memory and the madness that memory would bring? "Never mind trying to think. I was just up there. I heard your scream and I found you in a faint on the floor, carried you down here. There wasn't any light there, and there was nothing dreadful there. Only the window open and some trinkets gone from the dresser. It was a sneak thief you interrupted. The one, maybe, that stole some things from the Mortons' house last week. Only a thief."
Miss Bolt was snatching at something, at any diversion to take Sandra's numbed mind away from the remembrance for which it strove. "Never mind that, Sandra. Listen! Scratch is back!"
"Scratch!" The girl sat up, swung her feet to the floor. "Where? Where is he?"
Where was he? Where was Wally? Good Lord! She had forgotten them both. Had forgotten that the young man had not followed her upstairs, had not responded to Sandra's screams! "In the kitchen," Miss Bolt hazarded. What had become of Leeds?
"The kitchen!" Sandra was off the couch, staggering to the door of the pantry into the kitchen. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Miss Bolt got to her own feet, twisted toward the archway to the foyer. Was Wally lying out on the porch, struck down, perhaps, by those who had been upstairs in Sandra's room, planting that horrible Satan's crucifix there? Something of the sort must have happened to him; otherwise surely he would have rushed to Sandra's rescue. As soon as the girl was through that door she would go out to look.
"There he is! Scratch! Oh, my poor Scratch! What have they been doing to you?"
Good Lord! The collie was in there. Then Wally—Miss Bolt plunged after Sandra—was in the narrow pantry passage. Alice saw the girl halt suddenly, ahead of her.
It was a startled exclamation, vibrant with surprise. From beyond it, a dog snarled, growled. Miss Bolt came up to Sandra, looked past her. The collie was in the center of the kitchen floor. His black coat was ripped, torn, clotted with blood, and an ear hung by a thread. But he was erect. His lips were curled back from his blue gums, from his red-stained teeth. His eyes glared wolfishly at Sandra, and his hind-quarters were haunched on hind legs, gathered under him as if to spring!
But his forelegs were straight, planted stiffly on the floor, quivering. It made him awkward, grotesque, weird. It was as if he were divided in two, one part of which ravened to launch him in a lethal leap at the girl while the other fought to hold him back. His growl was the growl of a killer. His snarl was a warning, to stay back—a warning to beware of the killer he was!
Understanding glimmered suddenly in Miss Bolt's racked soul. "Get back!" she grated. "Sandra!" Her arm was around the girl's slight waist. She had thrust her behind her, sent her reeling through the door behind into the living-room, had slammed the door closed and rattled home its bolt. Then she whirled again, plunged back into the kitchen to face the collie, to take the attack he had been about to launch at Sandra, the attack his love for Sandra had fought to keep him from launching.
But startlingly, the beast had vanished. The open back door showed the way he had gone. Long ago, long before the world went mad, he had learned the trick of opening it.
A chill breeze came in, a soft wind, chill with the nearing dawn. A window curtain fluttered, Miss Bolt's glance flicked to the slight motion.
And her apprehension metamorphosed to a dread, freezing fear. A pallid oval was pressed against the black of that window pane. An oval that was a leering, incredible face!
Sandra's tones rasped in her ears, describing the face that stared now at her: "Dead-man's clammy-white mask! Dead eyes...!"
Dead eyes, indeed! Eyes that mirrored no soul at all. Staring black pits in the countenance of a ghoul. Wells of evil in the visage of one damned. Miss Bolt saw only the eyes—eyes which had come up out of perdition itself to stare at her...
Then they were gone! The face from hell was gone. Released from their fearful spell, rage surged up in the beleaguered woman. It was this, this fiend that tortured a helpless creature, that had lunged loathsomely to attack Sandra. She snatched up the carving knife that lay still on the unwiped drain board, plunged for the door.
The darkness was untenanted! No shape moved; no footfall thudded to show that anything was alive out there! She started out, hesitated, went back. She must remain with Sandra. Sandra was alone in there. Sandra might remember... and go mad!
The keen knife still in her hand, Miss Bolt groped through the pantry, found the door bolt, slid it back. The portal opened. "Miss Sandra...!"
The room was empty! It was starkly, staringly empty! Sandra wasn't there. Sandra wasn't anywhere in the living room...!
Wait! No need be frightened. Nothing at which to be frightened. She's gone out through the other door. She's gone but into the foyer.
No! Not here. Not in the foyer. Upstairs, then?
"Miss Sandra! Miss Sandra! Oh, God! Where are you, Miss Sandra?"
A frantic woman was running upstairs, dashing through a corridor, switching on lights, snatching doors open, staring goggle-eyed at ghastly, empty rooms. She was calling, "Sandra!" running, screaming: "Sandra!" She was running downstairs once more, screeching: "SANDRA!"
And only emptiness greeted her. Only silence answered her. She stood on the porch, swaying, staring into the huge blackness of the silent night. "SANDRA!!!"
What was that? The nostalgic, hollow, infinitely melancholy howl of a dog. Only the howl of a dog! Oh, God. Oh, merciless God!
FOR an infinite instant, despair cupped Miss Bolt in its skeleton hand, squeezing her heart with its bony fingers; madness itself racked her brain. For an infinite instant, her tortured soul beat futile hands against the image of God, and her tottering mind shrieked voiceless blasphemies.
And then something reached into the Stygian darkness wherein she weltered and pulled her out to reality again.
It was a dull sound, the faint, barely audible thud of a footfall. Alice's head jerked up, and she was listening, tautly, her whole being in her ears.
It came again. This time she was waiting for it, and she could tell that it had sounded from the right, from the East. From the East where the crest of Oaklake Hill showed blackly against a sky perceptibly lightening. The pallid ribbon of the road curved over that crest to drop into the valley beyond.
Something was moving on that wan ribbon. It reached the top of the ridge. Silhouetted there momentarily, Miss Bolt saw that it was a man, slender, gangling. It was a man she knew, Wally Leeds!
Wally Leeds had been in the Square when the Curse of the Dogs had been laid against John Stark! He had acted suspiciously while the Voice bawled its warning! By his own confession he had been present when Stark died! He had been somewhere near the road when the Curse had taken Roger Meadows!
He had been on the spot again while a dog was crucified and had brought that other dog, that black Hound from Hell, into this very house to threaten Sandra with the death that had overtaken Stark and Meadows and God alone knew how many more!
Wally Leeds, whose cause she had espoused, into whose arms she had fought to throw Sandra!
His Stygian profile dipped over the hill, engulfed by the blackness looming against the false dawn.
The False Dawn! What was it the demoniac giant had said to Meadows out there in the road? "Be at Crescent Quarry in the hour of the false dawn!"
This was the hour of the false dawn and Crescent Quarry lay over the brow of that hill!
All this flashed instantaneously through Miss Bolt's aching brain. Instantaneously, she was off the porch, dashing across the lawn where the Pack had fought, running silently on the sod alongside the road, running toward the false dawn, toward the abandoned Quarry where evil dwelt. Where—certainty was a blazing brand in the gloom of her agonized soul—where Sandra must be!
She knew now whence had come the terror that harried Oaklake, the menace that bit by bit had gathered about Sandra Crane till at last it had closed upon her and carried her off. She knew, this aged, frail woman, that she was hastening toward peril, toward such horror as once raped a cowering world in the Dark Ages and had flared again, incredibly, in this smug, timber-and-stucco neighborhood of the well-to-do. Still there was no thought of hesitation in her plunging, gasping dash toward almost certain immolation.
What could she do against the forces of Hell he had stirred up? Against the avatar of horror that had danced a wild Walpurgis bacchanal throughout this dreadful night and taken Sandra for the culmination of their Harpies' orgy?
She could at least die with the girl she had nurtured, the girl she had served, the girl she had loved. She could at least kill Sandra to save her from a more awful fate...
But she must hurry or she would be too late! She must hurry, through the swishing grass, the tearing briars, the bushes that whipped around her spindling, old shanks and sliced across her wrinkled face, or she would be too late even for that!
Never mind tottering limbs; never mind gasping, seared lungs; never mind the racking anguish of weary, superannuated muscles. Hurry!
A car zoomed up out of the West, burred along the road. Miss Bolt half-twisted to hail it; saw the figure at its wheel, the masked face behind its windshield. She twisted away to hide from it as it soughed past.
Another car, and another, and another, shot by, each with its masked-driver. The cohorts of Hell were gathering, the army of Lucifer was mobilizing. The Crescent Quarry at the hour of the false dawn! The gate to Hell was opening at the Judas hour!
The brow of the hill was reached at last. Down now, on hands and knees. The ridge is bare here, conspicuous against the lighted sky. Down on belly, snakelike, to squirm over the betraying spot. To squirm—to come up against something in the long grass. A body, a human body, stiff in death!
There was light here, a spectral glimmer of light from the silver-glowing vault of the sky. Just light enough to see the throat ripped open by fangs of a wolf, of a hound—a gaping wound in a fat throat that does not bleed! A distorted countenance once pink-cheeked and round. The face of Oscar Johnson!
Good hunting! Mad laughter tears at the spinster's flat breast. The black hound from Hell has had good hunting tonight.
No matter. Go on! Go on! Hurry! Sandra is below, down there where the black mouth of Crescent Quarry gapes, man-torn out of the earth. The mouth of the Quarry is black no longer. Suddenly, it pulses with an eerie, red glow, like the throbbing luminance in Sandra's room where a dog hangs crucified on an inverted cross!
Hurry! No! Wait! Voices below! Danger below! Lie here craftily to spy out the land. Lie here against the ground, against the fat body of Butcher Johnson that will no longer wear a white apron in the aseptic whiteness of Oaklake's Market. Unfair, Oscar, to lay you out here in the mud and mire-smeared rock when always the carcasses you carved have had white marble for their morgue-slab. Unfair!
It was foully unfair for Sandra, too, to be down there in the power of those fiends silhouetted blackly against the lurid luminance of the Quarry entrance. Sandra, with her body that shines pearly in her bath; with her wistful smile; with her brown eyes in whose depths wonder has lurked darkly, and heavy grief since that night when her father left her. Foully unfair!
Look! They are clotting around the mouth of the Quarry, forming a black mass like the dogs did at the railroad gate, years ago. One...two... three...six of them! Only six! Can a knife in the hands of desperation drink the blood of six in time to save Sandra?
It is no longer a woman who slithers soundlessly down the steep slope of a grass-covered, night-veiled hill. It is a cat, a tigress, crawling with grounded belly, with snarled-back lips, with eyes slit-ted by hate, red-misted with rage. She had become a jungle tigress in defense of her cub. Hunting the dog-pack, the wolf-pack that has carried her cub to its lair.
She is a tigress who is suddenly corpse-still as the red glow flickers startlingly and another figure appears at the heart of the flame. A tigress—afraid!
For this is no human shape that seems to float there in the hell-glare. A lean-flanked figure it is, scarlet-skinned, with a narrow, pointed face, slanted eyes that are glittering gashes, thread-like black eyebrows and black hair that twists, curling, to form horns on its forehead.
Horns! Cold, icy cruelty masked that face and those eyes. Cruelty and something else—something passionlessly blasphemous! Not evil in the sense men conceive it. It was simply and utterly a negation of good.
The night itself seems to shudder with the advent of that infernal apparition; to withdraw in utter revulsion from the spot made unholy by his presence. The bowl-like depression which is the Quarry, the black-robed, utterly motionless shapes down there, are suddenly outcasts of space and time, denied by God even as that avatar denies God.
The watching woman knows at last what the secret spell was that held the dogs in a thralldom of hate and awful fear. That same hate, that same fear, shriek soundlessly within her—not in her brain alone, nor her soul, but in every atom of her being! She hears herself growl, deep-chested, feels the slaver of foam on her lips, knows that never again will she be wholly clean. She is staring at an abomination, a curse, a boastful defiance of the Omnipotent!
A voice rasps, toneless, cold, and immensely cruel into the quivering stillness that has greeted the appearance of Antichrist.
"The Curse of the Dogs is upon you."
A moan drifts up to the woman, a six-throated moan of utter terror.
"But there is still hope for your escape. Within this cavern," a long-nailed hand moves almost imperceptibly to the yawning, light-veiled gap, "there opens a path on which but few men have dared to tread. A path to endless life, to boundless riches, and eternal obedience to—Me! From that path there is no retreat. Those who once have set foot upon it; those who once have dedicated themselves to my service; who once have cloaked themselves in my protection, no longer shall know desire denied. They shall be rid of all fear, ay, the fear even of death, as long as they render Me utter obedience. So long as they leave all other Gods and cleave unto Me!"
THE voice paused. The faint, far-off crowing of a cock was the only sound that broke the hush. But they did not hear it, those six who stood motionless before the throbbing red glow, before the gaunt, awful figure who offered them a bargain as old as Time.
"Make your choice. If you would enter upon the path, fear not, but advance into this flame. If you would not—" He shrugged. "Perchance you will better be able to combat the Curse of the Dogs than those of your fellows who already have defied it!"
He vanished, suddenly as he had come. There was only the red flame in the Quarry mouth, and that was fading. Somehow Miss Bolt knew, and knew those below also knew, that when that light was gone, that entrance would be closed forever. She waited, strangely agonized, for their decision.
The light paled.
A single, lonely figure detached itself from the little knot of bewildered men, and started away. The masks turned to watch him go. Their wearers swayed, queerly, visibly torn between fear of entering the gaping gate of the dying glow and fear of following their braver fellow.
The shadows enfolded him, blotted him out. From those shadows, a shriek ripped, jagging the silence with a scarlet thread of agony unbearable, of horror unutterable. A single shriek, and silence again!
The five who were left broke, whisked through the pallid red glow of Hell's entrance, vanished. The light was suddenly gone, leaving only darkness; leaving only velvet-black night still quivering with unspeakable terror.
The woman on the hill-brow leaped to her feet, mindless of being seen, mindless of anything except the devastating urgency to flee from here—away from this spot accursed by the presence of Satan himself. She whirled to scramble back up the hill, back to human companionship, back to sanity.
And she froze, suddenly, as a scream shrilled from the ground at her very feet, a feminine scream, Sandra's scream!
Her frantic eyes searched the night for the source of that scream, that single, terrified cry. But she saw nothing, blankly, starkly, sheerly nothing.
There came to her the noises of a struggle; the moan of a girl affrighted; the slap of a palm on bare flesh; and a loathly, gloating imbecile chuckle. Dreadful sounds, telling a dreadful tale, made by invisible wraiths sent to complete the downfall of her reason.
THE grisly noises were gone again, but Miss Bolt was starkly rigid on that hillside, strengthless, paralyzed, only her eyes alive. Her light-blinded eyes to which vision was slowly returning, so that the night was no longer black but a faint grey luminescence on the grassy field at which she stared. She lay on the bloated cadaver of the murdered butcher, traced its flung-out arm, its pallid hand that seemed to point at an irregularly round, profoundly black shadow in the grass, a shadow that was a well-like pit in the side of the hill.
The distrait woman remembered then. There were other outlets to the Quarry, ventilation shafts. This must be one of them. From this had come Sandra's scream. Through this, she could penetrate unobserved into the cavern of the damned, the cave into which Satan's chosen had entered. The cave where Sandra was prisoner!
Her lips twisted. Up over the brow of the hill and down on the other side lay Oaklake, lay safety. Down that shaft waited peril. Utter damnation. Madness!
The rock-lined, narrow shaft did not dip straight down, but angled steeply so that it was possible, just possible, for Miss Bolt to control her descent. It curved, and far below she could see a glimmer of lurid light.
She slid forward slowly, the rough stones scraping her knees, her elbows, tearing what was left of her clothing from her. The stone was warmly wet with her blood, but her mind was not aware of the pain of that rasping or the searing agony of it. She saw only the end of that descent into hell, and the shadow that bulked against the red glow.
It loomed up in the shadow of an inverted cross, black and gigantic, about which gruesome shadows moved!
The passage narrowed, its walls clamped on her, stopped her movement. She fought silently, squirming. It was useless, she could go no farther. Panic seized her and she fought to retreat. That too, was futile. Her weight and her struggles had wedged her tightly into a rock-cleft through which the air-shaft had been driven and which the ancient workers of the Quarry had not bothered to widen.
She could neither advance nor retreat, but she could hear, and, held horizontally face down, as she was she could see.
She could make out a great, hewn-out chamber which opened below the cleft that held her. She could see that it was filled with the same strange, pulsing, bloody light as had illumined the mouth of the cave. She could see five black-robed figures, their masks now gone, kneeling in silent adoration before a rocky altar from which rose a great, up-ended cross—the sign of the Antichrist, a mocking sign of those who denied Him who had agonized that they might be saved. She could see their faces clearly, the wan, drawn faces of Oaklake's wealthiest citizens. Their pupils were eerily enlarged, glassy.
On the rock before the blasphemous symbol lay a knife and a golden bowl. Larger by far, but just such a bowl as had received the blood of the crucified dog! Alice Bolt's skin crawled with the sight of that, and a shudder-some presentiment of its meaning maggoted in her reeling brain.
For a moment longer there was silence. Then suddenly, the rasping, toneless voice of the Horned-One vibrated into that chapel of Hell: "Prepare now to receive the Communion of Ashtaroth, the Last Supper of the Damned!"
He was there! As if sprung from the very rock of the altar, he was there before it, majestically satanic. He was genuflecting before the inverted cross, mumbling words of gruesome adoration that rose louder and louder and more clearly till they were distinct—and awful! "—Not of wine shall we drink, but of blood of a servitor of the One whose enemy thou art..."
Horror retched bitterness into Miss Bolt's throat; bitterness she must swallow again lest she betray herself. For on the rocky platform behind the cross there had come into range of her vision a big-thewed, big-chested giant, stripped to the waist. His face was the imbecile face that had leered in through the kitchen window, and in his tremendous arms he cradled the unconscious form of Sandra!
"Putting aside all righteousness, all-prayer, all allegiance to Him who in His pride cast thee down out of his Heaven..."
The gigantic imbecile stalked to the cross. With the dexterity of one handling a weightless doll, he had slipped Sandra's wrists into rope-loops ready at the ends of the cross arm, stretched her shining body, head down, along its upright, lashed her slim ankles to it. His brutish head was just below Miss Bolt. She could almost reach it...
The sacrificial knife rose in the other's hands. "We make this offering in humble supplication that it be sweet in thy nostrils..." The keen-edged blade was at Sandra's throat. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real! This wasn't actually happening. It was a nightmare; a ghastly nightmare.
"Stop! Stop! Don't do it." The woman was shrieking down at the Satan-worshippers. "In God's name...!"
The devil-priest's head jerked up. For an instant, his hand was stayed. Then he saw her and grinned understanding as if she were not there, continued, "and salty on thy..."
"Stop that, damn you!" A new voice roared into the chamber, a dark figure catapulted into the scene, flung itself at the Horned-One. A hand snatched the knife away from Sandra's white throat. Black figure and red were rolling on the stony floor in tumbling, whirlpool combat.
Oh God! Oh, thank God!
Too soon, Alice Bolt. Too soon for that prayer of thanksgiving! The giant jerked around, bent forward. His simian arms lashed out to the combatants. Pronged fingers clawed. The antagonists rolled and the rescuer came uppermost, within reach of those lethal fingers...
Miss Bolt's arm arced down through the cleft. The kitchen knife left her fingers, glinted, spanged into the giant's neck. It quivered momentarily, was obliterated in a gush of blood as the huge man toppled, crashed to the rock. His collapsed form was mountainous as it sprawled, writhing in death agony, half-on, half-off the rock altar.
A squeal of agony pulled the woman's aghast gaze from the man she had killed. The rescuer was atop the other now, his knees dug into the devil-worshipper's chest, his white fingers were clenched on the scarlet throat. They dug in, dug in! Cloth ripped; a white slit appeared from chin to horns of the demoniac priest, gaped wider. A face started up at her with bulging eyes from which life ebbed even as she gazed. A gaunt, familiar face, engorged now, empurpled beneath the mask that had hid it. Rennold Forson's face!
The man's long body squirmed, became still. His slayer swayed, unclenched his fingers, rose from his victim, turned to the cross on which Sandra still was lashed. He raised long arms to the ropes about her ankles. Miss Bolt saw his face.
It was Wally Leeds!
And then Miss Bolt screamed in mortal terror. A black body—a sleek black hound—hurtled from behind the cross whence the giant had appeared! It launched, great jaws open, red eyes glaring, straight at Wally's throat. Its gaunt body flashed with what seemed the speed of light...
And it was met by another ebony streak, another black dog that met it in mid-air, that crashed down with it on the very edge of the altar! Leeds sprang back from the furious maelstrom that exploded there, the snarling, growling, mad whirl of frenzied combat. It was a jetty blur, a hazed vortex impossible to stop; impossible to resolve into its components.
Until, almost as suddenly as it had begun, that whirl of action stopped... Two quivering, canine bodies lay on the altar stone, twitching in a final spasm, frozen into the immobility of death. They were black no longer, but scarlet with their own gore, with blood that still spurted from two torn throats. One was a thin-flanked, close-clipped bloodhound, black as the gate to Hell itself, the hell hound that had prowled the night to kill, and kill again. The other, the ebon dog that had given its life to save Wally, to save Sandra, was—Scratch!
SUNLIGHT streamed into the foyer of the Crane house as Miss Bolt came softly down the stairs. Wally lurched out from the living-room, a question in his countenance which his lips refused to form. But the woman knew what it was, answered it.
"She is sleeping naturally now. She will be quite all right. The last thing she remembers is hearing a noise at the living-room window—smelling something sweet. She took one whiff of that and fainted."
"Tetra-chlor-carbide! The same stuff with which he anaesthetized his five dupes!"
"What did he do that for? What good was all his mummery if they couldn't see it?"
"There was a flashlight camera concealed in that chamber. It would have been set off just as he drove the knife in. With that photograph in his possession, he would have had a key to the treasury of each one of those men. They would have obeyed him slavishly the rest of their lives. But—Sandra—did she say anything about—about—"
"You?" The spinster smiled tantalizingly. "Yes. Come to think of it, she did. In fact, her first words as she woke up were: 'Wally! Alice, dear. Where's Wally? Why isn't he here?' "
Leeds' eyes shone. "That's great! I..."
"You'll do nothing, young man, till you explain to me just what your connection was with all this. I'm still not convinced of your innocence." The woman's stern tone was belied by the twinkle in her eyes. "Come on in here and tell Aunt Alice all about it."
There was no shadow in the living-room now. "Well," Leeds commenced. "I began to suspect him almost at the start, down in the Station Square. I saw him coming out of the radio shop next to Johnson's right after the voice stopped. I remember that Cartwright had installed a loudspeaker over his transom about a month before which the Council wouldn't let him use. I knew it hadn't been dismantled.
"I tried to follow Forson, but he got in his car and drove away. But even then, I was certain what it was that made the dogs behave as they had. Somehow, he had managed to spray Stark, and the others, with the extract of wolf fat. I've done some hunting in the Rockies, and I recognized the odor, knew that domestic animals both hated and feared it.
"I managed to get into Rennold's garage, found the hairs of a black dog there. I found a club, too, with blood on it, and the scent of the wolf was quite distinct on that club. He had beaten the animal with it till he would instantly attack anyone with that scent on him. His sense of recent injury would overcome his ancestral fear. And there was a little vial of snake venom there, too, a poison harmless if swallowed, but fatal if injected into the blood stream, even through a tiny scratch. He must have painted the hound's teeth with that.
"I knew now I was right about the man, but I hadn't any real evidence and I didn't suspect the length to which he was going. I dogged him, however, after he left here. That was how I happened to be in the field when you saw Meadows die. I tried to catch him then, was just too late. I came back to look for Sandra, whom I had been startled to find there. And the rest you know till after the collie came back and I saved him from the other dogs."
"Yes. Why did you run away then? That was what first made me certain you were at the bottom of everything."
"I saw someone jump down off the porch roof and I followed him. I was sure I had caught Forson red-handed then, but he evaded me in the dark. I went back to his house to head him off, but he passed me in his car just as I reached it. He was going East and I wondered why. I followed on foot. I saw the performance at the Quarry, hiked to Prescott's to 'phone the police. I was a quarter-mile away, coming back, when I heard Sandra's faint scream. It only flashed on me then that when Sandra refused to marry him he would not get the wealth he anticipated. I heard that under the window while I was waiting for him to come out. He decided to make use of her in another way.
"She smelled wolf on him," Miss Bolt explained. "She didn't quite know what it meant, but instinct revolted her, and she ordered him from the house. You came just in time to save her. The police were too late."
"But I couldn't have won if you hadn't been there to drop that knife where it would do the most good. You're some spunky old gal, sweet Alice Ben Bolt."
Miss Bolt's nose twitched. "Don't call me that, you fresh youngster. I'm not sweet. You'll find that out soon enough after...after..."
"After Sandra and I are married? Well, you'll be the salt to make her sweetness palatable. We can't get along without salt, you know!"
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