The love Mary Dean cherished for Paul Faston made her strong in the face of mind-shattering horror, drove her unhesitatingly to offer her lips and herself to one whose embrace was as hard and stony as the cold, brutal lust that glared from his unhuman, madman's eyes.
MARY DEAN saw the red flag sweep down, signaling that everyone was well clear of danger from the blast.
"All clear," she said. "Let it go."
With a single heave of his muscular shoulders Paul Faston thrust the plunger down into the little black box from which long wires trailed away. Muffled thunder pounded across the desert plateau. A tiny smoke-puff, grotesquely out of proportion to the sound, spurted out of the summit of the high cliff that from time immemorial had walled the far side of the alkali flat. The towering grey rock-face leaned away from the mesa with slow majesty. Then it arced down, faster and faster, crashed into a myriad fragments.
A shrill, piercing wail sliced through the deafening detonation of that gigantic collapse. It jerked Mary's startled look to the Indian powder-monkey who had been crouched alongside Paul. The overalled aborigine's coppery countenance was a writhing mask of abysmal terror. His arm, outflung and rigid, stabbed pointing fingers at the dust-cloud billowing above the fallen precipice.
The cloud was a vast, demoniac face, blotting out the mesa, the sky itself, with swirling darkness. Staring at it, a sudden freezing panic ran quivering through the girl's veins.
Wanoo's gibbering scream formed words.
"He wake!" the Indian squealed. "Nahmeto wake again. Thunder-sticks hurt Nahmeto and he wake to punish us. We all dead. When Nahmeto come in night we all dead!"
Somehow Mary's fingers were digging into Wanoo's shoulder. "Nahmeto! Who—who is...?"
"Nahmeto evil spirit my people. Half man, half rock. When dark of moon come steal people and eat, make himself all man. Nahmeto go to sleep in mesa when paleface comes, now wake up again."
For a terrible instant the frenzy of ancestral fear in the Ute's voice swept Mary into his terror. An icy shudder ran through her, and then Paul's strong arm caught her away from the gibbering Indian.
"He's full of tequila, hon. Forget him."
Her lover's vibrant strength throbbed against her trembling, slim form, and the fear seeped away. The cloud was no longer a sinister face. It was just swirling dust that thinned rapidly to let her see hazily the knot of laborers far to one side and the familiar low roofs of the mining camp.
"How was that for placing shots?" Paul's deep-chested voice ran on. "Look! The cliff front's cut off as clean as if I'd sliced it with a big knife, and there's the vein of silver ore your dad insisted must be there."
"It is. Paul, it's there!" Mary saw the dark splotch to which he pointed. "Dad's made his big strike at last. The strike he's hunted for all his life. Now he—"
"Hell!" the exclamation jolted across her jubilance. "I'll be—"
"I'm not so good after all. See that spur sticking out like a sore thumb, twenty feet up? That should have come away with the rest. I'll swear I put a shot right there. The fulminate must have? Good Lord!"
Paul jerked away from her, abruptly, was running toward the blasted cliff-face, toward a khaki-clad figure clambering the riven, white-glaring granite. Mary was running too, her high-pitched cry flinging out before her, joining itself to Paul's almost incoherent shout.
"Ned! Don't! Stop, Ned. Stop!"
Ned Thiel knew as well as they the peril toward which he climbed, the peril lurking behind that outjut of weathered stone. Dynamite is tricky stuff and often a dud shot goes off minutes after it should by all rights be dead and harmless. But he was climbing swiftly, unheeding their shouts of warning. Ned was like that, swaggering, reckless. That was what had finally decided her against him, what had finally made her choose Paul instead of him in their fierce rivalry for her. Only minutes ago she had told Paul—
"Ned," Paul shouted again. "Ned, you ass!"
Thiel didn't hear him, or else didn't want to hear him. He got a brown hand on the rocky protuberance, another, swung free from the cliff face. For a moment his sturdy frame hung, penduluming, and then he had chinned up, was hidden...
Mary caught up with Paul. "Why is he doing that?" she panted.
A dark film of wrath underlay the anxiety in the hard-rock man's broad-boned face. "He's trying to show me up," he gritted. "Beating me to the dud to prove I didn't make the right connections."
A spurt of yellow flame from above checked him, and the flat pound of a dynamite blast. Paul's shoulder thrust Mary backwards. The rock was falling was bounding down the cliff. A piece split off from it, smaller, blacker, hit some vagrant inequality and took its own errant course.
It thudded to the ground, at Mary's feet. It wasn't stone. It was human flesh, charred, battered, hideous. The arms, the legs, were sheared from shredded stumps by some gruesome whimsy of the explosion. Only the torso was left, and the head, rolling in macabre simulation of life.
Blackened eyelids flickered open. Living orbs stared up at Paul, at Mary. Eyes incredibly still alive flared with unutterable anguish—and with unutterable hate. Out of the flame-crisped horror that was once Ned Thiel's face a tortured soul glared at them, cursing them.
Dark vertigo swirled about Mary Dean.
"Don't look!" Paul's voice gibbered out of the thud of many running footfalls. "Don't look, Mary..."
"Nahmeto!" Wanoo's guttural accents jabbered out of the whirling nausea. "Nahmeto quick to punish..."
Merciful oblivion blotted out the voices, blotted out everything...
PAIN, almost physical, twisted in Mary Faston's breast. How terribly, she thought, her father had aged. She shouldn't have let Paul keep her away from him so long. A year it was, only a year, since the terrible accident to Ned Thiel and her own resultant nervous collapse. It might have been ten years, judging by the change in Henry Dean. His face was seamed, old. There was a queer pallor under his leathery tan, and in his sun-faded eyes a secret fear lurked.
"You shouldn't have come back here," he repeated. His gnarled hands fisted on the table-top, transparent and almost-flesh-less against the charts that were startlingly blue in the lamplight. "If I had known Paul would bring you with him I should never had wired him to come."
"I'm glad you did. Paul was fretting himself sick at that desk job in the city. He belongs out here and I belong wherever my husband is."
Dean didn't answer her. A hush crept in between them, the ominous silence of the desert night. Her father's thoughts seemed to have slid unaccountably away from his daughter as his tortured gaze had slid away to peer with some eerie dread out through the room's one iron-barred window.
Those bars! They were new since she had left. Outside torches flared from a multitude of high poles, the flat sand glistening in their flood of yellow radiance. Truck tracks rutted the alkali and above them a black, gargantuan network loomed, the interlaced high timbers of the ore-car trestle that slanted up to the workings in the unseen mesa face.
There was no work going on. Why then the blazing illumination? From what source came the brooding, almost tangible aura of apprehension the light could not dispel? Why were these thick bars over the windows, here and in the bedroom? What was it Henry Dean had whispered to Paul that had sent him striding, stiff-legged, out into the night with the collie, Laddie, at his heels?
"Dad! There's something dreadfully wrong. What is it?"
Mary's voice, throbbing with tenseness despite herself, pulled her father's gaze back to her.
"Wrong?" His lips were livid under the bristling white of his mustache. "I didn't say there was anything—wrong."
"You said I shouldn't have come."
"I meant—I—it might remind you of—"
"Of poor Ned? I'm over that. I know I was delirious for a week after the accident, and then Paul had to take me away after he married me, but I don't dream about Ned any more. I've managed to let the dead past bury its dead." Something in Dean's expression stopped her, tore a sudden, terrified question from her. "He is dead, isn't he? He isn't still alive—like that?"
A veil seemed to flicker, momentarily, over the old eyes. "Yes. Yes, of course he's dead. What made you—?"
And then he was on his feet, was twisting to the door, a snub-nosed automatic in his hand. Something had thudded meatily, just outside.
There it was! A pulsing, brown bundle, five feet beyond the threshold. A bundle around which a stain spread, glinting redly, on the glistening sand. A whimpering squeal of fierce agony spurted from it.
Mary got to the thing just behind her father. Got to it and froze, while dark horror ran, a black flame, through her veins. It was Laddie. The collie's legs were gone. They had been torn, by main strength it seemed, from their sockets, but the gory remnant of the dog still lived.
The pound of Dean's gun, orange-red jet of flame from its muzzle, put an end to the mutilated beast's sufferings. Mary shuddered.
"Nahmeto," a guttural voice grunted behind her. "Nahmeto strike once more."
Mary whirled to the overalled, high-cheek boned Indian. It was Wanoo, a rifle in his clenched hands.
Dean leaped past her.
"Shut up, damn you," he yelled, hysteria fuzzing the edges of his scream. "Shut up!" His fist lashed out, cracked against the Ute's mouth. "Get back to the ore-house where you belong!"
Wanoo rocked back on his heels. For a moment he was a motionless, dark statue, his black, reptilian eyes glittering with primordial hate. Then he had slipped away, a soundless shadow, as he had come.
"Dad," Mary cried. "Dad! Why did you do that?"
The miner jerked around to her.
"That's the only way to handle them," he snarled. "Smack them down."
"But—The girl checked herself. She was afraid of her father, suddenly afraid of the man whose tender solicitude had enfolded her all her motherless years. It was not Dad's face that confronted her, it was the face of some maniac, writhing, with inexplicable rage. And then, abruptly, the spasm had passed.
"I—I suppose I shouldn't have done it. I was too rough. But I've been going through hell and my nerves are shot. Through hell. I told Paul—"
"Paul! Father, Laddie was with Paul!" The words spewed from Mary. "What's happened to Paul?"
She spun around. The desert was empty, flat and terribly empty to the obscurity beyond the last glimmer of torchlight. Nothing moved, nothing had been out there. But Dean's hand was on her shoulder.
"Up there!" He pointed to the black loom of the cliff behind the small cluster of houses that made the construction camp. "The dog was thrown from up there."
"Come on then." Mary surged away, her flying feet crunching in the alkali. "Come on. We've got to find him."
Her father's feet pounded alongside of her. They were past the office shack, past the bunkhouse, were swallowed by the strangely baleful shadow of the trestle. Where it butted against the precipice a ladder lifted to obscurity.
Mary plunged toward the spidery steps. And halted. The blackness moved, at the base of the ladder. The girl crouched, trembling, and her father was crouched alongside her, his weapon jerking up. The moving shadow took on human form, lurching away from the cliff.
"Stick ?em up," Dean croaked. "I've got you covered."
The shadow grunted, stopped. As it straightened a face came into a vagrant light ray.
"Paul," Mary cried. "Paul! Thank God!"
"Yes." His voice was thin, pain-shot. "It's Paul." There was a blue bruise over his right temple and a streamlet of blood drooled from the corner of his mouth. "Where's—?" He choked, pitched forward. Lay, a crumpled, motionless black heap on the black sand.
Mary got to him, tugged at the prostrate form, cold fingers of a great fear clutching her throat. Paul rolled over. His eyelids flickered open, his eyes stared sightlessly up at her.
Then they were alive again, were dark pools that stared at some remembered horror. But his blood-smeared lips quirked in pathetic attempt at a reassuring smile.
"Fooled him," he muttered. "He thought I was—knocked out. Chased Laddie—and I—got away."
"What was it?" Henry Dean quavered. "Did you see him? Did you get a good look at him?"
"No. It—he jumped me—out of the dark—at the top of the ladder. Hit me—fist like rock. Laddie went for him. He batted dog away, went after him—I'd followed—tracks."
"What tracks? Where?"
Her husband's hand jerked toward the foot of the ladder. From somewhere Dean produced a flashlight. Its beam shot out, struck the white sand into vivid existence. As if on a moving picture screen Paul's footprints scarred the light-disk, one set pointing toward the steps, a wavering set coming back. There were the small dots of the dog's paws, going only one way. And there was another spoor.
Mary's scalp was a tight cap for her skull as she gaped at those eerie imprints. The depressions were spaced alternately, as Paul's steps were spaced. But they weren't footprints. They weren't marks made by any human, or any beast. They were sharply rectangular, heeless, toeless, arch-less. They were like marks made by small boxes, pressed one after the other into the sand. Like the imprints of boxes, or of feet hacked out of stone.
She didn't will the dread name that spurted from her lips. It was as if some power outside herself spoke with her tongue.
"Nahmeto!" it gasped. "Nahmeto."
"YOU'VE got to tell me what it's all about, Dad. You've got to!" Mary Faston's mouth twisted, uncontrollably. "I've got to know."
They were in the office again, the entrance door bolted. Paul had lapsed back into unconsciousness after gasping out his fragmentary account of his adventure. Between them the girl and Dean had managed to carry him to the shack that housed the office and Dean's living quarters, had made him comfortable on the bed in the inner room. His injuries were not severe enough to account for his pallid stupor.
"I suppose I'll have to." All the firmness, all the resolution Mary remembered had gone out of Dean's voice and a queasy fear had taken their place. "Let's sit down and I'll tell you."
Once more they were seated across the desk from one another. Once more dread was an invisible but almost tangible miasma in the small room.
"It began just a week ago. The Indian laborers were a bit jittery right after the accident on that final blast, but they calmed down and all the preliminary work went along as well as could be expected. We started actual mining. The first reports came back from the smelter better even than I had hoped. And then—one morning—I woke up to find them all gone."
"All except two. The night-watchman at the head of the shaft was still there. He'd be there yet if I hadn't buried him. His head was bashed in as if a ton rock had squashed it. But there wasn't any loose rock around heavy enough to have done that. And—"
Dean stopped himself, gulped. Mary saw that his hands were trembling.
"And what?" she demanded. "Don't hold anything back!"
"And his arm—his left arm—was torn out. I couldn't find it anywhere."
"Good Lord! What a fiendish thing! It's incredible!"
Incredible was it? What of Laddie, lying out there, a legless horror? Why had that been done to him?
"Wanoo was here, too," her father's dreary voice plodded on. "When the dynamiting was done I'd made him a sort of foreman over his people, didn't bother to replace Thiel or Paul, and he slept in the ore house. When he saw what had happened to the watchman, he shrieked out some nonsense about Nahmeto, started to run away. But I caught him and—and I made him understand he had to stay with me."
Mary didn't have to ask what means of persuasion Dean had used. His grim tone, the sledgehammer fists into which his hands knotted, were answer enough.
"Wanoo stayed," he repeated. "But that didn't help any. I couldn't get anyone else to work here. Even the truck-drivers, white men, laughed at me. The El Greco mine, west of here, was working day and night shifts, was offering more money for trucking than I had been paying them. If I couldn't give them ore my contract was broken and they were free to work for the Tolmans. The Tolmans are making millions, Mary. Millions! And I'm going broke here. Every cent I've got is sunk in here. Every cent. Payments due at the end of the month..."
"Dad!" A sudden thought struck Mary. "Couldn't they be behind this? If you go broke they'll be able to buy the mine for a song and—"
"By Jupiter!" Dean surged erect, his face graying, his eyes coals of black fire. "That's it! That must be it!" He snatched at the door-bolt, rattled it back!
"Dad!" Mary leaped to him, grappled with him. "Wait! You can't go out there now. The—the killer's out there. He'll get you!"
He struck her away from him. "The killer, hell," he snarled. "I've skulked in here long enough while he prowled out there, making devil's tracks in the sand, laughing at me." His gun was in his hand as he slashed the door open. "Laughing—O God!"
Dean staggered back as though a physical blow had jolted him from the doorway. Through the yellow radiance a maniacal sound struck into the room. It came from the darkness beyond the torch flare, a hyena-like gust of lunatic laughter, a mindless cachinnation high and shrill and terrible. Screaming it came to tear at Mary with talons of terror, screaming like the laughter of some fiend of Hades, watching the tortures of the damned. And then—as though a portal had shut on the pit of the Inferno from which it came—it cut off!
The sudden silence shuddered against the girl's ears—was split again by a shriek. By a shriek of utter agony this time, of unendurable pain.
A black something lurched from around a corner of the shack, pounded down onto the yellow shimmer of the desert. It floundered, sobbing out its high wail of agony, scrabbled toward the door. It was a man, down on all fours like some grotesque beast, and the groove he made in the sand was blotched by gory trail. It was Wanoo, thudding face down at last into the dirt, his anguish fading into a moan, into fearful silence.
Henry Dean rushed out to the Indian, went down on his knees alongside the quivering form. The gnarled fingers of his free hand dug into Wanoo's shoulder, shook it as a terrier would shake a rat.
"Spill it, you snake," he grunted. "Spill it! Who's paying you for this stunt?"
"Dad!" Shocked indignation at her father's brutality drove fear from Mary's brain. "Dad! Stop it! He's hurt! He's terribly hurt! Look at his leg!"
The limb, awkwardly twisted, was a mass of blood in which shreds of cloth and of lacerated flesh were inextricably intermingled. "Hurt, hell!" Dean snarled. "He had no business under my window. He was eavesdropping on us. When he heard you guess the truth, he pulled this trick to get us out here."
"Trick! Dad! He wouldn't do that to his leg to play a trick. It's—it's awful. No man would do that to himself."
"These Indians aren't like us. They can stand pain that would drive a white man crazy, and if they've got their minds set on—What's that?"
A shadow had flicked across him, across them both, as though a huge bat had flitted between them and the light. It jerked Dean to his feet, whirled him and the girl to peer, appalled by a nameless terror, into the torchlight flare.
Nothing. There was nothing in sight. Nothing that could have cast that shadow.
Then came the slithering whisper of sand and a ponderous thud from around the other side of the shack, where the bedroom window was!
"Paul!" Mary yelled. "It's after Paul!"
She snatched the automatic from her father's fingers, threw herself across the hut-front, past the corner. A formless dark shape slewed around to her from the shadowed shack-side. A ghastly, pallid countenance gibbered at her—a visage featureless and demoniac in the dimness—and her weapon thumped against her thumb-cushion, belching flame.
The lethal jet streaked the darkness, lashing straight to the spectral apparition. The bullet thudded—astoundingly—as though it had splattered on solid rock! The thing jolted back into darker shadow.
"You missed him," Dean spluttered, beside Mary. "You missed—" The white stab of his flashlight pierced the murk where hut-shadow joined cliff- shadow. "Give me that gat!"
A light-disk shone on the sand and revealed the weird tracks of something that was neither man nor beast. Uncanny, rectangular markings lead away until they were lost in the tumbled debris at the cliff-base.
Words twisted in Mary's throat, spurted from her frozen lips.
"I hit him. I'm sure I hit him."
She had not missed. She could not have missed. But the grisly attacker was gone. He was gone and there was no blood, no blood at all, on the sand where inexplicable imprints marked his flight.
No blood! A sound echoed within Mary's brain like a deathblow to sanity. The dull impact of lead on stone. On stone! And then a sourceless and demented mockery of laughter sounded out of the darkness.
"Kill me?" it seemed to say. "Bullets? Fool!"
"Look!" Mary's father grunted. "Look at this!" His light was playing on the window now. Two of the bars were twisted, as though a crowbar had attempted to pry them apart. "He was trying to get at..." But only the prowler's hands had been raised to them. Only his hands.
"Paul!" Mary whirled, was dashing back to the entrance, was through it, was across the office and in the small bedroom beyond.
A cry of relief came from her lips. Her husband was on the bed, and the white sheets mounding over his unconscious form were unrumpled, unstained. His face was pale, waxen. Pain-sweat dewed his forehead.
"I didn't—" The blurred scream of delirium burst from his pallid lips. "You're wrong, Ned. I didn't—"
Mary got a grip on herself, moved to the bedside. The touch of Paul's brow burned against her palm. "Hush, dear." She spoke as one might to a little child. "Hush. Sleep."
Paul's eyelids flickered open. They revealed terror, for a frantic instant, that faded as the brown eyes found Mary's face. "Honey," the sick man whispered. "Your hand feels—so good. So cool. Don't go away. Don't."
"I won't dear. I'm staying right here, with you. Always with you. Sleep. Sleep."
"He's all right," Henry Dean said from the doorway. "Stay here with him and he'll be all right. I'll get that damned Indian in here and drag out of him what he knows."
He shut the door. Paul's tortured eyes had closed again. Mary swayed, managed to let herself gently down on the edge of the bed. The room door was badly hung and a little light filtered in past its edge.
It must be a nightmare through which she moved. A dream of insensate fear such as she had wandered endlessly through in the dreadful days after Ned Thiel had died. In them she had seen Paul's torso torn apart, her father's, her own. Legless, armless lumps of flesh doomed forever to an endless death in life...
But she hadn't been able to think, in those nightmares of delirium. She had accepted the horrors as inevitable, not rebelled against them as she did now. There had been no such concrete evidence of the reality of the terrors encompassing her as this sleeping form at her side, as those twisted bars, black in the window's glow dimly reflected from the torches Dad had set up against the prowling menace.
What was it, the fleshless thing with the face of horror that had driven the iron-nerved engineer to the very brink of madness? Was it in truth that aboriginal demon, that Nahmeto, of which Wanoo had shrieked warning when Paul's dynamite had split the cliff away? Had the demon taken his first victim then, returned now to stamp out the rest of the blasphemous strangers who had disturbed his age-long rest?
No! That was superstitious nonsense. But—but perhaps the Indians did have something to do with it. Dean had mistreated Wanoo, had undoubtedly mistreated the others of his degenerate tribe. They were cruel, the Indians, cruel and cunning. Had Wanoo really been listening under the window? Had his distress been indeed a grisly, stoic trick to lure Dad and her out so that his accomplice could get at Paul? If their ears had not been so sharp to catch the sound of the prowler...
But the mangled wreck of Wanoo's legs had been terribly, horribly real. Despite Dad's words she could not believe the wounds self-inflicted. Was it the Tolmans, then, the owners of El Greco mine, who were behind these terrors? The Tolmans, as she had thought before, ruthless, unscrupulous men grown rich by dubious means. If only she could get a connected, detailed story out of Dad she could get at the answer to the mystery.
Mary glanced at Paul. He was asleep, peacefully asleep. His fever seemed to have gone down. She would chance leaving him. If he awakened, she wouldn't be far, only in the outer room, talking to Dad. If she tiptoed out, soundlessly...
Soundlessly! Her hand on the doorknob, Mary froze. The space beyond the portal was soundless, too. Realization came to her that she had heard nothing from the outer room since her father had shut the door and shuffled away. If he had dragged Wanoo in, had questioned him, the noise of it would certainly have come in to her.
She was afraid! She was deathly afraid of what she would see when she flung open the door. But she must.
It was open. The office was empty. Wanoo wasn't there. Dad wasn't there!
Mary's hand went to her mouth. Apprehension was an icy, leaden lump in her breast. She stared at the closed outer door with dilated, aching pupils. Dad was out there in the dreadful night. He was out there with Wanoo, with the Killer.
Silence lay heavy, ominous against the walls. A pall of silence shrouding what dread happening? A waiting silence, waiting for her to open the door, to step out into the fear-filled desert...
"Dad!" the girl whimpered. Her burning glance searched the room for some weapon. No gun. Dean had the only one there was. No knife. On the table a fist-size nugget of dirt-encrusted stone speckled with glints of native silver.
She snatched it up and she ran out through the door into the dancing flare of the torches. The ground before the house was appallingly empty. Even the terrible fragment of Laddie was gone. Even the slumped body of Wanoo from the depression where he had lain. But from that blood-splotched wallow a track wandered away across the glistening alkali—a track of deep-pressed imprints, rectangular, heelless, toeless. The track of the Killer-Thing!
It gripped Mary's agonized gaze with its sinister significance, pulled her stare along it as though vision were concrete, were something that could be dragged against will through the night. Across the arid flat, across the ruts the trucks had made in some far-off day when the world had been sane and free from terror. It swerved to lose itself in the black enormity of the ore-car trestle.
The dancing flare of a torch beyond the timbered spider-web lent it a trembling, grotesque life, as though the gigantic insect that had spun it plucked now at his raying network. With queer inconsequence Mary's eyes moved up along the interlaced beams to search for it—and found it!
The black thing hung, twisting, high up in the criss-cross mesh. It wasn't a spider. It was a human form, pendulant from a filament-like rope—a human form, hung by the neck.
Mary was running along the plateau, the salt sands crunching under her flying feet, her hair streaming behind her, the scream that tore at her suspended in her choked throat till that terrible question should be answered.
THE trestle, the hanging corpse, swam toward Mary Faston. She could see them clearly now; the twisted limbs, the head lolling on the broken neck. Flame licked up from somewhere, struck into awful distinctness a purple tongue jutting out under a bristling white mustache, eyes bulging from an engorged countenance that was a gargoylesque, distorted caricature of the face she had loved. The scream tore loose—a shrill crescendo of grief and despair.
And then suddenly she was silent, was crouched and silent against a splintered, sun-dried upright. That scream of hers had evoked movement, somewhere near, a whispered hint of movement she had heard even through her wail. She probed the flickering shadows to find its source.
Nor was it with fear that she sought the skulker. Fear had gone from her, was cauterized from her soul by white-hot wrath. A lust for vengeance surged within her, snarled her lips away from her small white teeth, flared redly in her slitted eyes. For vengeance on the being, human or demoniac, that first had driven her father mad and then had killed him.
The yellow sand at the edge of the trestle's shadow was jogged, abruptly, by a moving silhouette. A figure limped cautiously out into the light. Mary bent lower in her covert.
Wanoo's swarthy visage turned toward the spot from which she had screamed. His eyes glittered reptilian in the ambient glare, and his arm bent up. He held an automatic—Dad's gun. No doubt now that he was the killer. No doubt that he was looking for her to complete his lethal task.
Mary snarled. Her hand lashed out, the silver nugget arced from it. It crunched sickeningly against Wanoo's forehead. He collapsed, sprawled, very still, in the sand.
"Got him!" the girl cried. "Dad! Do you see? I got him first shot!"
She flung herself out into the light, arms above her head in a gesture of triumph, a screech of victory keening from her lips. A thump above her punctuated that cry, the thump of her father's corpse windblown against wood that made a frame for a picture of grisly death.
And another sound slashed across the abrupt silence, a sharper sound. It was the slam of a closing door—the shack-door that she had left open behind her! Mary whirled. She saw the wooden leaf swing inward to the invisible thrust of the wind, slam shut again. Was it only the wind that swung that door?
She was running again toward the hut where she had left her husband! She was sprinting through the yellow-luminous night. Paul was so weak, so helpless, there. And Wanoo was not the only killer abroad that night.
She got hands on the door-knob, heaved it open, and flung herself into the inner room.
And froze, a moaning, rigid statue in the center of the bedroom floor. Paul wasn't there. The bed was horribly empty. While she had been gone from him, breaking her promise, abandoning her trust, the killer had come in through the door she had left unbarred, and had taken him.
The killer! Not Wanoo. Impossible for it to have been Wanoo. That other. That faceless thing on whose body bullets thudded with the sound of lead oil rock. Nahmeto! The ancient demon of the mesa awakened to ravening, furious life!
Ned! Dad! Paul! It had taken them all to punish them for their blasphemy. Only she was left. It would not spare her. Its vengeance on Paul accomplished, it would return for her. Like molten quicksilver the terror boiled through Mary's veins, woke her to action. She leaped out again into the office, sliced home the bolts that might hold the door against the threat and shoved the heavy desk against the portal.
And then it was there! Thud of heavy feet in the sand, crash of a ponderous something that was not flesh against the door, heralded its arrival. It was a snuffling menace battering against the barring wood. A gibbering shout demanding entrance.
Her skin an icy sheath for her quivering body, Mary was incapable of movement, of thought, of anything but stark and naked fear. She stared at the stout wooden barrier, at the strappings of iron that reinforced it, at the huge bolts Dean had fashioned, as he had fashioned the bars over the windows, in the mine smithy. Would they hold? Would they avail to keep out the demoniac entity whose shattering, furious blows shook the door, the shack itself, as though at any moment the structure must collapse?
Those blows, the sound of those blows, buffeted her body as though the wood, the space between, were non-existent. "Oh God!" The prayer was neither voice nor thought. It was a wordless entreaty wrung from the girl's very soul. "Oh great God! Make him stop. Stop him. Please stop him!"
Was it in frustration, that, pat to the instant of that prayer, the battering ended? End it did, and silence seemed to Mary Faston more fearful somehow than the tumult it followed. More fearful because underneath the silence there was the slither of something prowling along the side of the cabin, the scrape of stone along its walls...
And then the prickling, ghastly sensation of inimical, hostile eyes glaring at her from behind.
"Mary!" A familiar voice husked her name. "Mary!" The voice of Ned Thiel! The voice of one dead for a year.
The girl's blood froze. Ned was dead. Ned Thiel was dead. It was a voice from beyond the grave that called her.
How it happened Mary did not know; certainly she had not willed it, but abruptly she had swung to the sound of that voice and was facing the oblong, striped aperture in the wall that was the barred office window.
It was blurred to her vision, and then it was distinct in the glare of the lamp penduluming from the ceiling. And it framed a face that thrust, monstrous, incredible, against the bars.
At least it was oval-shaped, like a face. But no face under heaven could be like that, gray-green, square-meshed by fine, red threads as though some devil's seamstress had patched it together out of shroud-fragments from unblessed graves. The lashless eyes were black rents in the patchwork, the bridgeless nostrils two cavernous gouges, the mouth a writhing, toothless blasphemy.
"Mary Dean. I have come for you!"
"No," someone shrieked. "O God. O Mother of Mercy, no!"
It wasn't she who vented that pulsing cry. It wasn't she. Her throat was rasped with it, it shrilled from between her lips, but she was dreaming it as she was dreaming the Thing at which she stared. Somewhere deep within her Mary's revolted soul denied its reality, denied the reality of all the delirium that had culminated in this. The nurse's needle would prick her, in seconds. The blessed relief of morphia would send its weltering dark up into her brain, releasing her once more from—
Something pounded against the iron bars, thrust through them. The Thing's hand. Not a hand! A forked, crab-claw of dirt-encrusted ore speckled with silver as the nugget with which she had brought down Wanoo had been speckled. And dimly behind it she could make out an arm of the same jagged rock—of rock such as formed the mesa!
The macabre limb slid in, jerked, fulcruming between two bars. A stout black rod bent under the irresistible leverage.
The face blurred, withdrawing from the window. Another pincer appeared. The grotesque things pried at the barriers. The iron was bending, was twisting, was pulling loose from its fastenings...
Mary Dean laughed. It was funny, funny. The Thing had arms and hands of rock. It was all of rock except for its grisly face. No wonder her bullet hadn't killed it. That was funny too. You couldn't kill something that had never lived. It could kill you. It could rip the legs from a dog. It could hang your father. But you couldn't kill it.
The last bar squealed from its setting. The face thrust in. Shoulders followed it—naked shoulders amazingly the color of human flesh—from which earth-scummed arms groped to pull the demon through.
Nahmeto was in the room. Nahmeto. Half human, half rock. He had arms of silver ore ending in crablike pincers. He had legs of silver ore, grotesquely misshapen legs of white-splotched stone whose feet were rectangular blocks of rough-hewn rock. His torso was human. And he spoke with Ned Thiel's voice.
"Mary! You are mine at last. Mary!"
Ned—Nahmeto pounded across the floor to her. His claws reached out for her, touched her frock, ripped it from her.
Mary screamed, piercingly, horribly. The rocky arms went around her, hugged her close to the sweaty heat of that naked, incredible body. Slavering lips seared across her cheeks, found hers. From the lewd kiss tendrils of black fire darted upward to her brain, exploded within her skull, blasted her into a whirling maelstrom of darkness.
The darkness whispered her name, the dank-smelling, pain-pulsing darkness in which she weltered whispered to her, calling her out of sleep, out of blessed oblivion.
She was cold. Damp-cold. The nurse had let the covers slip off from her. Mary reached down for them, touched nothing but her own flesh. What had they done with her nightgown? Why was the bed so hard, suddenly, cutting into her as if she were lying on jagged rock.
"Mary darling. Wake up. He's gone away."
He—Who? What was Paul whispering to her? What was he trying to tell her? He mustn't see her like this. They weren't married—yet. The girl's eyes flew open.
Queer! The dim nightlight flickered on rough-hewn stone above her. She was lying on stone! She was in an arched, low ceiled tunnel, like a mine-drift. It was a mine-drift. Terror pounced down on Mary, remembering. Nahmeto had carried her off to the drift of the silver mine, piercing the mesa face high above the desert.
"Mary, listen to me. Maybe we've got a chance."
Pain ran through her, fierce pain, as she rolled to Paul's whisper. She saw him. He was upright, stripped naked, lashed to a vertical timber that supported some weakness in the tunnel roof. The ropes binding him cut deep into his chest, into his belly, but oddly his arms and his legs were free. He was reaching backwards, his muscles bulging with effort, was trying to reach the rope knots behind him. But the beam was too thick.
"Paul!" Mary exclaimed. "You—you're alive. He didn't—"
"Kill me! Not yet!" Grimly. "Never mind that now. Can you get up? Can you get at this knots and untie them?"
"I'll try." Mary pushed feeble palms against the ground, shoved herself to her knees. The effort seemed to jolt her brain loose in her skull. Nausea twisted at the pit of her stomach, a dizzy vertigo whirled about her. But she persisted—was on her feet—was staggering toward Paul—was around behind the pillar. Dim luminescence, seeping in through the tunnel entrance, showed her the knots holding him. Her fingers flew to them.
And she groaned. "They're wired tight, Paul. I can't."
"Then get away. Back through the tunnel."
"No! I'll find a sharp stone and cut them." She saw just what she needed, bent to pick it up...
Crazed laughter jabbered in her ears and she was caught by rasping stone that gripped her shoulders and held her thus with overpowering strength. Then she was in those indomitable arms again. An abortive shriek rasped in her throat. A chuckle of horrible, gloating triumph seared her ears, and she was being lifted away.
"Mary!" Paul cried out, alarm thinning his voice. "Mary! What's happened?"
"He's caught me. He was here all the time! He was playing with us!"
The shrill, maniac laugh drowned her out, the gibbering mockery of laughter that had first heralded the appearance of the demon. She was slammed against another beam, was lashed helplessly to it.
She could just see Paul, straining against his lashings to get some glimpse of her. They sliced his flesh. Little driblets of blood appeared.
"You devil!" Paul roared. "Let her go! If you hurt her I'll—"
"You'll do nothing, Paul Fasten!" The grotesque demon whose voice was Ned Thiel's voice lurched away from her. "You've done enough to me. It's my turn now."
"Ned!" Faston's shout was a scarlet thread flickering against the dimness. "You—I thought you were—"
"Dead. The old fool told you I'd died on the way to the hospital. He wanted to save you, and your wife, from thinking of me living. From being haunted by the thing you made me. Half-alive, without legs, without arms! I hanged him for that!"
"Oh, my God!" Paul saw him at last. "You—"
"Handsome, am I not?" Thiel chuckled. "I've seen myself in a mirror. Take a good look. I hope you like it. I hope you like what you see. Murderer!"
"Murderer! What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. You fixed that shot so that it would catch me and kill me. That was the only way you could win Mary from me. But dynamite is tricky stuff, and it fooled you. It didn't kill me. It only tore my legs and arms away and burned the skin from my face. It only made me something the devil himself wouldn't touch with his pitchfork."
"I didn't. You're cra—"
"Maybe I am. Who wouldn't go crazy, with that happening to him? But they fixed me up, in the hospital. You see—I'm not the first man this has happened to. There were lots of them, in the war. Basket-cases, they called them, and then they didn't call them any more. They hid them away in hospitals, in England and France, in Germany and in America. They hid them away and the people forgot about them. But the doctors didn't forget. For twenty years the doctors worked, and at last they found a way to make some of them—half-human—again. Those that had stumps left, of arms and legs. Stumps like I had, to which they could hitch legs and arms made of silver, with machinery inside by which they could be worked almost like real arms and legs."
Silver! Mary saw now that the limbs she had thought stone were really fashioned of that metal. Tarnished, crusted by earth as the madman had prowled the labyrinth of the mine till it had gone back to the appearance of the ore that gave it birth, Wanoo's ravings had made her see the silver as that rock of which the Indian demon Nahmeto was said to be formed. But Thiel was still talking.
"I was lucky, Paul Faston. They grafted skin on my burned face and they made me arms and legs. And then they turned me free, to find my bride. I've got her, now. I'm a man still, even if I am half-dead, and I'll take her when I am through with you. When I am through..."
The voice of Ned Thiel splintered again into demoniac laughter that sliced Mary's shredded nerves as with the keen edges of white hot knives. There was some insane intent behind that maniacal cachinnation, some plan for revenge more horrible than her wildest fears could conceive.
"Ned," she cried. "Ned! You're wrong! Paul didn't try to kill you to win me. He didn't have to! I'd promised myself to him already. I'd already told him I'd marry him."
The gargoylesque figure twisted around to her. "You lie! You loved me. You love me now..."
Perhaps another tack would succeed. "Of course I love you. But you don't love me." Unbelievably she managed to shut the hysteria out of her voice, the queasy revolt that seethed within her at the sight of that lewdness to make it reproachful, seductive.
"I don't love you! Would I have come back, half-dead as I am, to claim you if I didn't love you?"
"If you loved me you wouldn't have tied me here like this. The ropes hurt, Ned. They hurt dreadfully." If she could get free she somehow would save Paul. Thiel must be vulnerable at the places where his metal limbs were joined to their stumps. She'd grab up a stone and...
"They're cutting into me. Won't you loosen them, my darling?"
It was working. He was coming nearer, nearer, almost reluctantly.
"Do they hurt you, Mary? Are they too tight?"
"They are, Ned dear. Too tight." He was near enough now to reach out to her. The silver claws touched the rope that went across under Mary's breasts, slipped upward to dent her throbbing flesh. The madman drooled, flung himself against her. His loathsome face nuzzled avidly, eagerly, seeking sensation other men find with the hands and arms he did not have...
"Sweet," the crazed, sex-starved cripple blithered. "So sweet..."
The touch of him was slimy, repulsive. An uncontrollable shudder of loathing shook Mary. He felt it, sensed its meaning. He leaped away from her.
"You hate me," his writhing lips spewed from his visage of a ghoul. "You're looking at him, at his strong body, his whole limbs, and you cannot bear the touch of me. I'll fix that. Watch. Watch me, my sweet."
He jerked around, darted toward the tunnel entrance, vanished. And then, instantly, he was back.
He was back and trailing from his grotesque claws were four writhing ropes that stretched out to the portal. Their cut ends were looped in small nooses. He lurched to Paul, laughed...
And with a swiftness of movement that took the bound man by surprise he had slipped those nooses over Paul's arms, his legs, had tightened them at his armpits, his hip joints, had surged away.
"What are you going to do?" Mary shrieked, her frightened heart battering at its caging ribs. "What are you going to do?"
Thiel laughed once more. "Make him like I am, Mary darling. Make him like me. And then you can choose between us."
"Listen." His voice dropped low. "The other ends of these ropes are fastened to an ore-car, out there on the trestle. There's a ton of rock in that car and it's on the down-slant. All I've got to do now is to knock away the wedge that's breaking it.
"The car will start slowly, very slowly. There's slack in these cables, yards of slack. The car will go faster, faster..."
"You devil!" Mary screamed. "You fiend incarnate!"
"Who made me that way?" the madman snarled. "Who made me?"
He was gone again. He was outside the portal. His ponderous metal feet pounded on the rocky ledge, and then there was another sound. The thud of a sledgehammer on a wooden wedge.
"Paul! Paul dearest! What are we going to do?"
"This!" Paul's head was bent far down on his chest, across which the loose cables trailed that coiled to the door. His mouth was open and he was squirming to get one of them between his teeth.
"Can you get them off? Paul! Can you save yourself?"
"No," he grunted. "But I can save you. Here—!" He had a grip on the cable, his head jerked. The rope looped through the air, fell across Mary's shoulder. "Get that around your neck."
Thud! Thud! Thud! The sound of the sledge-hammer came into the tunnel.
Mary understood. Death, any death, would be better than what Thiel had in store for her.
Thud! Thud! Thud!
It was done. The cable was twisted around her neck. When the ore-car started...
Thud! Thud! Thud!
Death thudding out there. Death for herself, for Paul. Death! She could have saved them from this. She could have saved them—if that fatal shudder had not betrayed her revulsion to the maniac. She had condemned them to death!
"Ned!" she screamed. "Ned! Paul's fooling you. Paul's going to kill me, too. Save me, Ned!"
Thud. It wasn't the pound of the sledge this time; it was the thump of the half-dead man's metal foot. Thud, thud, thud. Gigantic, misshapen, he lurched in through the drift opening, saw the rope twisted around Mary's neck.
That ghoul's visage of his was incredibly more horrible than before. "You dog," he blithered. "Trying to rob me of my bride!"
"Save me," Mary moaned. "Save me, my dear."
He pounded toward her, was between her and Paul. Even in that moment his eyes of black flame licked her nakedness, covetously. His claws reached for the noose.
"Kiss me, Ned. Kiss me. I know I love you. I know now I've always loved you."
"Mine! You're mine! Aren't you mine, Mary?"
"Of course. Your—bride. Take me, Ned."
His hot breath fanned her cheeks. His loathsome body pressed close against hers, his writhing lips slid across her cheek, found her mouth.
Mary arched her body, thrusting breasts, abdomen against him, shoving him away. Off-balance, he staggered back...
As she planned, Paul's fingers closed on Thiel's upper arm, on his biceps of metal. Jerked. Twisted. Thiel shrieked in sudden agony as the limb came away from its stump, wires ripping from the living sinews to which they were attached. The arm was a club in Paul's hands. It flailed, crashed down on the maniac's skull. A crunch of smashed bone sickened Mary. Spurting blood sprayed over her.
Thiel was a crumpled, gory heap on the mine-drift floor.
"He's licked." Paul's triumphant shout battered at her ears. "You've licked him, Mary."
But there was no surge of triumph, of relief, in the girl's veins. She was staring at the ropes trailing across the floor, at the ropes that were fastened to Paul's limbs. They were moving. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they were moving!
The wedge was loose! In that last second before she had called him away, Thiel had loosened the wedge. The nearer end of the trestle tracks were almost level, the car's own weight had held it steady for awhile, but now it was starting to move. In seconds it would reach the steeper pitch, plunge downward, tearing Paul's arms, his legs, out by the roots. But first the noose would jerk tight about her own throat.
"God!" Paul's cry told her that he, too, had seen their doom. "Head up, Mary. You've still got a chance."
He was sawing at a rope with the notched edge of the silver claw that terminated the arm he had torn from Thiel. At the rope that coiled across to encircle her neck. With no thought for himself he was working frantically, desperately, to save her.
"Don't, Paul," Mary cried. "Don't. Let us go together."
"Not you. Not you, dear. I've got it. I'm almost through."
A frayed thread broke loose. Others. But the ropes were almost taut now. Which would win?
The hemp dropped lax, trailing across her bosom. Paul snatched at the others gripping the three in a single, desperate clutch.
"Ugh!" A guttural exclamation pulled Mary's bulging eyes to the drift entrance. Wanoo sprang in, a knife glinting in his hand. Wanoo! Despair smashed down. Even if the impossible happened, even if Paul could get himself loose, Wanoo would finish them.
The ropes snapped tight! The Ute bent, slashed at them with his keen-edged weapon. They parted, twanging. The ore-car rushed away, making rumbling thunder. But she was alive. Paul was alive, unhurt.
"Ugh," Wanoo grunted, his beady eyes glittering as they stared down at what was left of Ned Thiel. "Ugh. Nahmeto dead. Nahmeto no tear Wanoo's leg again. Nahmeto no hit Wanoo on head with rock no more. Only boss got right to hit Wanoo."