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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

ONE NIGHT OF TERROR

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First published in Dime Mystery Magazine, June 1934

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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When terror stalked her every step and each dark corner hid a pair of watching, hungry eyes!



TABLE OF CONTENTS



Cover Image

Dime Mystery Magazine, June 1934



I. — THE WATCHING DREAD

IN the darkness Norma Lloyd could not see the little bridge over Wayne Creek, but she knew from the hollow rumble of boards under the roadster that they were on it. From beneath, the brawling of the thaw-swollen stream was greedy, ominous, and the hills circumscribing Hidden Valley, black against a black sky, seemed near, too near. They were like the inexorably moving walls of some monstrous Inquisition pressing inward, imperceptibly inward, till their victim must be crushed between. The girl shuddered and shrugged closer to her companion. The rasp of his rough tweed sleeve against her cheek, the sharp redolence of tobacco, gave her a grateful feeling of security. She felt the swell of his biceps as he tooled the car around an unseen, familiar curve, and an aura of masculine protection enveloped her. The car slowed.

"I'm afraid the storm will catch us if we walk, honey," Ted Stone's warm, deep voice sounded. "Maybe we'd better drive right up to the house." His face was only a paler oval in the gloom, but Norma visioned every broad-sculptured line of it. The corners of his mouth would be quirking in the tender half smile that was for her alone. "I'll switch on the headlights and take the upper road."

"No." Her tone was sharp. "No, Ted. They'll know then that I was out with you and—"

"What of it? The Sabins haven't any right to dictate to you. They're nothing but servants..."

"Ted!" she cried indignantly. "I won't have you call them servants. They are real friends. You know very well that Prudence is the only mother I've ever known, and that Silas is devoted to me."

"And why not? You mean a swell home and good wages to him. He—"

"Theodore Stone!" She pulled away from him. "Stop it. Stop it at once! Just because you don't like Silas you needn't keep on hinting—"

The jerk of the car as violent brakes went on, and jarred Norma to a halt. Lightning flickered behind the distant head of the valley and against its illumination Oak Mountain was a towering, jagged pyramid of ebony. Even in the stress of the lovers' quarrel the sense of dread, of impending evil, closed in again on Norma. But she would not admit it to Ted, or to herself. Her tumbling speech was only momentarily interrupted; yet despite herself its tone was subdued when she continued, "I've never felt they were servants, nor have they. I wouldn't hurt them for worlds. Anyhow, we must think of Jeefers."

"That's right!" Ted ejaculated. "I forgot that you were supposed to have driven down to the village with him."

"Yes. And he's waiting on the road now so that we can come back together. If Silas found out I was really with you, Jeefers would be the sufferer. He is irritatingly slow and clumsy about his work, with that short arm and twisted foot, and the old man would be only too glad of an excuse to fire him."

"That settles it, kid. Guess we'll have to take the short cut. But I'm hanged if I like it." There was a slight edge of worry to the young lawyer's robust tone.

"You're usually rather fond of that walk along the creek." A hint of Norma's usual merry teasing sounded in the lilt of her voice, "Why the sudden aversion?"

"Come on! We'll have to hurry." Stone was out of the car, was lifting the girl out. Their lips met, and she clung to him for a moment. Then they were off the road, were following a path so accustomed that the aid of the torch Ted carried was unneeded. "It isn't that," he responded to Norma's remark. "I meant this hole and corner business, this skulking. Fine business for the assistant prosecutor of Calkin County to have to meet his sweetheart behind trees."

Bushes rustled as the couple pushed through them, angry waters boiled to their right and far-off thunder rolled. But Ted heard only the part mocking, part affectionate sound of the other's rebuke: "Oh Teddy boy, when will you learn patience? It's only for a month more. Then I'll be twenty, dad's will will let us get married, and—Ohhh!" Norma's sudden scream was accompanied by a splash.

"What the..." Stone's flash beam sprayed out. It showed the girl sprawled on the muddy creek bank, within inches of the tumbling, angry stream. Ted bent, lifted her to her feet. "Are you hurt, dear?"

"I—I don't think so. Part of the bank has given way. See..." She pointed. A trough was visible where earth had slid into the foaming waters. Then she gasped, "Look Ted. What's that? What is it?"

The man followed the line of her shaking finger; saw that which his light revealed. "Good Lord!"

At the edge of the disk of luminance something was gray against the black-brown of the mud, like gray rootlets curling. It was a hand, a skeleton hand, the flesh-stripped phalanges clawed as if it were scrabbling at the ground. Just that grisly hand showed; the rest, horribly, was covered by blackness.

The threat of the Stygian night was imminent, personal. A rumbling thunder growl filled the valley and the sky was vivid with a fluttering, eerie light. Norma clutched Ted's arm, her fingers dug into his muscles. For a long minute the two stared at that which lay across their path. Then the torch moved in Stone's cold fingers and the light patch slid along the mire, slid along a bony arm, illumined a skull from which vertebrae sprouted like some noisome trailer vine. Ribs branched, arching down into the ooze, and mud ran fluidly away from the long leg bones at which watery fingers plucked.

"Good Lord," Stone said again, slowly.

The girl's voice was thin, edged with hysteria. "Ted," she mouthed. "Ted. Do you see? Do you see?"

"That the back of the skull is crushed in. Yes. The man was murdered."

"That too." She was forcing speech out through a squeezed throat. "But the...the arms. The left foot..."

Her quick eye had caught something he had missed. Ted peered closer and cold rippled up his back. One outstretched arm was longer than the other; the left ankle was oddly deformed. If he were alive, upright, the man's one foot would be twisted sidewise. Just so was Jeefer's foot twisted, just so were his arms mismated, the handyman who was waiting for Norma on the road near here. Who should be waiting here...

"It's Jeefers, Ted. It's Jeefers."

"No," he almost groaned. "You saw him alive two hours ago. Even if something had happened to him in that time he couldn't have become—like that—in so short a time."

Something, a plump, pallid worm, crawled out of an eye socket.

"But there couldn't be two men with arms like that, with a foot twisted just like that. There couldn't..."

Blue light exploded and deafening thunder peal rolled away, reverberating along the valley. A wall of wind swept down, howling in a siren blast; great raindrops lashed at them. Ted whirled to the girl, grabbed her arm. "Come on Norma, we've got to run for it."

The wide meadow they had to cross, drenched and with running, slipping steps, was a lake into which a torrent pelted, the road beyond, a river. Through the driving rain the house was invisible till they stumbled on its very steps. Stone half carried Norma onto the porch. They could breathe something other than water here, but it was poor shelter. "Get inside," he gasped. "And I'll try to make it back to my car by the road."

"You'll have to stay here, Ted." The girl dabbed ineffectually at the water streaming from her hair, her forehead. "You can't get anywhere in this."

"But Sabin..."

"Never mind Silas. This is different. I wouldn't send a dog out in this weather, much less you. You must stay."

An opening door was outlined in a yellow light; a black figure was silhouetted within its aperture. An old man's voice quavered, "Who is it? Who's there?"

"I, Silas. I'm drenched."

"Come in. Come in then. Who's that with you?"

"Mr. Stone. Hurry, Ted. Prudence will give me fits if we get her nice hall all wet. The rain is blowing in."

There seemed nothing else to do. Stone followed Norma in, helped Sabin get the door shut against the drive of the wind. The latch caught, the old man slipped a bolt into its socket, and turned to the dripping couple. He was tall, powerfully built; but his clothes hung loosely from his gaunt frame, and there was a half inch space between his collar and the seamed, leathery skin of his age-shrunk neck. His cheeks were hollow, and between them his great nose stuck out like a promontory on a rocky coast. Tobacco stain edged the white of his uneven mustache. His eyes—Norma saw only kindliness in their faded blue while her fiancÚ insisted they were sly and scheming—now peered near-sightedly at the girl. "You're all wet," he said.

"Silas," the girl ejaculated. "Jeefers—"

Sabin jerked his nasal pointer to the curtained archway behind which was the parlor. Gruff voices rasped from within. The old man's bloodless lips moved, forming silent words. "Look out!"

There was sudden tensity in the entrance hall, and Norma realized that Silas' hands, gnarled but almost transparent, were trembling slightly. Thought slid through her brain, lightning-fast. He didn't want the men inside to hear about Jeefers, he knew something but didn't dare to talk. Who were the visitors, anyway? The Lloyd farm was ten miles from its nearest neighbor, and visitors rare.

Why was Silas so terribly frightened?

Ted broke the taut silence. "You'd better go upstairs and get into dry clothes, Norma." He had noticed something too, and he was trying to get her away.

The girl kept her voice even. She must find out what was going on. "Right you are! Silas, will you please ask Prudence to come up and help me?"

Sabin's eyes were bleak. He made a little ineffectual gesture. "Prue's inside. She's busy." His troubled glance strayed to the parlor door. He was trying to convey a message, but Norma couldn't understand him. The voices inside had stopped; there was a listening silence. Norma made a decision. She moved quickly, too quickly for Sabin or Ted to stop her. Her hand was on the curtain and she thrust it aside.

The cluttered, ancient room was lit only by dancing flames in the fireplace. Two strangers were seated either side the hearth, firelight concentrated on them like a theatrical spotlight. One was slender, short. His swarthy, sharp face was ferret-like; his mouth a thin, cruel slash.

The other overflowed his big chair, bulged through its interstices. His hands were blobs of unshaped dough at the ends of columnar arms folded across a billowing, mountainous abdomen. His tremendous head, absolutely hairless, presented a face that was an expanse of blankness dotted by a tiny red mouth and pig like eyes almost overwhelmed by waves of yellow-pink flesh. The girl thought of the grave worm that had oozed from an empty eye socket and shuddered. This man was like that creature of rottenness, magnified...

A piping, thin voice startled her. "Good evening, young lady," it said. The fat man's lips had moved, but it took an instant to realize that so huge a body could emit so tenuous a sound. "Pardon me for not rising, my—mass—must be my excuse." There was a faintly foreign flavor to his precise utterance, the merest hint of alien blood. "Get up, Juan, where are your manners?" His minute eyes did not move from her as he shrilled the command, but the other jerked from his seat like an automaton. Something glittered under his unkempt black hair. The last touch of unreality was added to the scene as Norma saw it was a gold earring.

"Good evening?" For the life of her Norma could not have said more than the two words, but she contrived the interrogative inflection. Windows rattled as the gale battered against the panes, and the downpour was a steady drumming. The girl wished herself out in the tempest rather than here in the warmth and dryness with these men. There was something inimical about them, something deadly.

She was being answered..."We were driving past and the storm swept down on us. Your man was good enough to permit us to take shelter here." The way he was looking at her made Norma conscious that her drenched frock was clinging revealingly to her figure. She tried to pull it away with numb fingers. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am John Smith." He lied, of course, and wanted her to know it.

"I am Norma Lloyd." She felt Ted's presence behind her.

"And this is Mr. Stone." The fire flared, its light invading a hitherto shadowy corner behind Juan, and she saw Prudence there, bolt upright on the edge of a chair. There was a misery of fear in the woman's face as she twisted at her apron hem. It was evident that she wanted to get away, but dared not. Was this the explanation for Silas' strange actions outside? Was his wife a hostage for his discretion?

"I am glad we could offer you protection from the rain. But why are you sitting in the dark?" Norma's hand went to a wall switch at her side, clicked it on. Garish illumination flooded the room, but it did not dissipate the dread that lay there like a pall.

Ted came past her. His eyes were somber, his smile palpably forced. "You were on your way to visit someone in the village, Mr. Smith?" he asked suavely.

Juan scowled, but Smith's countenance was a bland, expressionless mask. "No," he wheezed. "No. We were just passing through."

This, too, could not be true. There was no highway through Hidden Valley's twenty mile length. There was only the one entrance, through the notch between Oak Mountain and North Hill. The "village" was a general store and post office, a feed store and a blacksmith shop. Unless they had mistaken their way the man's answer was a lie. And "John Smith" did not look like one who would lose his way.

Ted reached the fire, turned his back to its heat. "I see," he said slowly. "I see." His gaze was fixed steadily on Smith's face. "In other words, it is none of our business what you are doing here." His jaw firmed and his brown eyes were challenging. Juan grunted. Norma saw his hand dart to his belt, caught the flash of metal, a knife, and her throat tightened. But Smith flashed a warning glance at the man, and his hand dropped away. Then the obese stranger looked at Stone. "Exactly," he said blandly. "Exactly." He seemed coldly amused.

Silence, tense and breathless, followed his words. Ted did not move from his position before the fire. He seemed to be waiting...

"Norma! Go upstairs and change." Ted's eyes were demanding. "You'll catch your death of cold."

She didn't want to go. Something was going to happen, and she wanted to be there to help. But she could think of no reasonable excuse. "Please go, Norma," Ted said firmly. She turned and went out into the hall, her small fists clenched.



II. — THE WALKING DEAD

THE stairwell, rising from the entrance hall, was boxed in. But there was a switch at the bottom that turned on a light upstairs. Norma clicked it and started up. The house, solidly built as it was, trembled a little under the repeated blows of the storm, and she could hear the long, eerie whooo of the wind. The creek must be over its banks, she thought, and shivered as she recalled the skeleton lying down there in the meadow...

She stopped, halfway up the stairs, and bit her lip. Was that a furtive footstep she had heard above? She listened. But the sound did not come again. She must have imagined it. There was nothing up there. Nobody. She was cold and nervous. A rubdown, fresh clothing, would calm her. She started up again, reached the stair head.

And then, without sound, the lights went out! She was in darkness, enveloping, ominous. She turned. There was only firelight glow below through the curtains she had left open. The storm...

A sound whirled her around. Something leaped at her from the darkness, something she glimpsed just as a hand went over her mouth and an arm clamped around her waist! Hot breath was in her face, a low growl in her ears. Her firm little hands snatched at the rough fingers on her lips, tore them away. She screamed, "Ted!"

Then the fingers clamped down again. Now they were forcing her head back, were bending her whole body back over the clamping arm. Sweat stench was acrid in her nostrils, her spine was cracking.

Footsteps thudded up the stairs, Ted roared, "Norma! What...?" Norma felt herself flung, headlong, away from her snarling attacker. She crashed against a wall, slumped to the floor, half-stunned and momentarily paralyzed by the impact. But against the dim glimmer she saw Ted hurtling up the stairs, saw a silhouetted arm, something clutched in its hand, rise and fall; heard the sickening crunch of its weapon against Ted's head. He collapsed, soundlessly. A gargantuan shape bent over him. The arm rose again for a finishing blow.

And from somewhere, then, Norma gained strength to catapult from the floor, to hurl herself on that dark form. The man staggered under the unexpected attack, twisted, snarling. But the girl was swarming over him, a furious whirlwind, biting, scratching, and kicking. She was primitive woman battling for her mate; she was a tigress protecting her young. A hard fist thudded against her, somewhere, but she felt no pain. Her nails ploughed through soft flesh; there was the warm, salty taste of blood on her tongue.

Somehow, she realized, she had snatched the club from his hand. Now she half raised it to strike. Dodging, the man gathered himself, threw her off, wrenched away, and was gone. Norma heard his footsteps thudding away down the dark hall. Perhaps the very fierceness and unexpectedness of her attack had beaten him—and yet it seemed more that he had of his own volition decided to postpone this—that he had perhaps another task to perform, from which he would return to this—later. These thoughts Norma did not think, yet dimly they registered on her brain as she crawled to the dark, unmoving mound that was Ted. Her hand found his head, felt sticky, viscous liquid thick on his temple. Light! If only she had light. She whimpered in her tight throat. Was he...?

From below affrighting sound vibrated up to the girl, burbling horrible sound. It was a scream, a wailing, agonized scream. It cut short, and there was dreadful silence. Then someone moaned down there.

There was a slight movement in the flaccid body under her hands. Ted groaned. Then he was quiet again, and the only sound from him was the soft whisper of shallow breathing. He was alive, alive but badly hurt. His torso was on the landing but his legs trailed down the steps. He was terribly wounded and needed help. If she left him like this and he came to, moved, he would tumble down the steep stairs. That might kill him. Norma tugged at him, trying to pull him up to the hall floor. But he was too heavy; she could not budge him.

Norma's thoughts were reeling light and darkness. Fear, terror tore at her. Up here, somewhere in the dark, was the man who had done this. Below were those other men, and something dreadful had happened there. She dared not leave Ted. She must get help to move him, hot water to bathe his wound. He would die if she didn't do something. If only there was someone to help her.

"Silas," she called, finding her voice at last. "Silas!"

Silas did not answer. No one answered. The wind howled outside, and muffled thunder rumbled, but within the house there was only the terribly faint sound of Ted's breathing and a low moaning from the parlor. "Silas!"

Yes! There was another sound. Up here, somewhere back in the shadows, there was a stealthy, hissing scrape...A rat? Old boards warping? Or was the mysterious attacker creeping back to finish his kill? Norma crouched, tried to pierce the darkness with her eyes. She could see nothing. The sound did not come again.

Her fingers groped for and found Ted's wound. It was a gash, a terribly deep gash above his left temple, where his hair began. Blood welled from it rapidly. She could feel his pulse against the bone, and it was weak, dreadfully weak. Downstairs, in the kitchen, there were first aid supplies. She must get them. She must get them or Ted would die. If she ran, if she went quickly, she could get back before anything more happened to him.

Norma got to her feet. The moaning had stopped. She threw one more terrified glance into the gloom of the upper hallway, and then she was running down the stairs...

She gained the entrance foyer, was through the archway. The men were gone! No! One lay on the floor just beyond the hearthstone; the little one with earrings. He lay face down in a dark pool that reflected ruby light, and the back of his head was bashed in. Norma wondered why he wasn't a skeleton like Jeefers, whose skull had also been crushed. She hurried past him. She must get back to Ted. She couldn't stop.

Prudence was in the same chair, but she was bound to it now and there was a gag in her mouth. Her frightened eyes begged Norma to release her. But Norma rushed on to the door in the side wall that led to the dining room. Beyond was the kitchen and the things she must get for Ted. Prudence was tied up but she wasn't hurt. Time enough to take care of her later when Ted was safe. Ted, dear Ted, who lay up there at the head of the stairs, so terribly hurt. She must get back to him, she could stop for nothing.

She didn't see the dining room or the short, narrow passage into the kitchen as she ran through them. She saw only the small closet over the kitchen sink where bandages, iodine and cotton were. She snatched them out, whirled and was running back. Passageway, dining room, parlor with its corpse and its bound woman, were a blur. She was dashing up the stairs. "Ted," she whimpered. "I'm coming."

"Ted!" Norma reeled against the wall at the stairhead. He wasn't there! She sank to her knees and felt along the floor. Here. He had been right here. But he wasn't here any longer. "Ted," she moaned, and stared with fearful eyes into the blackness of the upstairs corridor. The prowler had come back, had carried him away. He was somewhere back there, somewhere in the darkness.

In the darkness! She must find him; she must have light to find him. And there was no light. But there were candles in a chest up in the attic. She had put them there herself, and matches, the last time the little powerhouse in the village had failed and the lights had gone out.

It wasn't courage that brought Norma Lloyd to her feet, that took her through the blackness of that hall where the prowler lurked, that set her climbing the ladder to the attic. She was an automaton, a machine moving without conscious will, a robot impelled by some power outside herself. This peaceful world of hers was suddenly mad; this quiet house where she had been born was suddenly a place of terror, of sudden unexplained attacks, of grisly murder. And terror had driven thought from her, had driven fear from her. She was beyond all that. She was beyond everything save anxiety, heartrending anxiety for the fate of her wounded, vanished lover.

The musty, dust smell of the attic was in her nostrils. Rain drummed on the slanted roof over her, thunder resounded, appallingly loud in this confined space. It was pitch-black but she needed no light to find the chest she sought. Rough wood rasped her hand. The lid came up, screeching protest. The shriek of the rusted hinges hid another sound, a stealthy footfall Norma did not hear...She felt for the candles, and their cool roundness greeted her fingers in a nest of soft cloth. There were matches here too.

Norma struck one against the chest. A tiny triangle of flame flared up, flickered. A candlewick caught and the darkness retreated. But only a little way. It still lurked where piled boxes and trunks offered it refuge. She puffed out the match.

And she went suddenly rigid. For someone was here in the attic! She felt eyes on her, heard the hiss of taut breathing. Her scalp tightened and she stared at the candle flame.

The sly scrape of a stealthy step prickled her nape. She forced her gaze up from the wavering spark. An impalpable violet flame danced against a formless heap of rubbish in a far corner, where the roof-pitch joined the floor. Her light scarcely reached the black pile, but it was changing shape. Something was coming out from behind the mound, an ungainly shape. It was clear now, was moving slowly forward. It was a man...

He crouched as he moved, and his head was thrust forward from burly, gorilla like shoulders. He advanced implacably toward the girl and, gripped in a nightmare paralysis, she could not move, could not scream. His face came into the candle glow.

It was chalk-white, that face, save where dark pits marked the eye-sockets. Black ooze dripped from its matted hair, zigzagged across one bleached, hollow cheek, slid past one corner of a thick lipped mouth twisted in agony. Norma stared at the face and horror engulfed her. A soundless scream tore her throat.

The face that was coming slowly, implacably toward her was the face of Jeefers! And Jeefers' stripped bones were out there where the storm howled, pressed into brown-black ooze.

He came on, the man who was dead, A the man who should be dead but was not. He advanced inexorably toward her. Closer, closer, in an infinitely slow, an infinitely threatening progress that held her spellbound. Hot wax dripped on her fingers that held the candle, and still she was rigid. Only the irises of her eyes moved, widening. She could see his eyes now, fathomless dark pools of malevolence.

Abruptly, now, those eyes seemed to burst into flame. Power of movement returned, Norma's hand jerked to thrust the candle into them.

There was a thud behind her and fingers clutched her wrist—from behind! Jeefers leaped straight at her. She dodged, twisting to the new menace—wrenched away sprawling. The candle dropped, was gone—darkness swept in—and a muffled jar told her that Jeefers and the other had met.

Norma was on her knees in the dark, and over her, unseen, they were fighting. She heard the impact of blows; she heard animal snarlings, deep-throated growls. She heard the rip of torn cloth, the confused pounding of quick-moving, shifting feet. A choked squeal came from one clamped, tortured throat. Trembling, she crawled away, crawled toward the trapdoor where stairs began that led down, away from this horror. Behind her a fist smacked against flesh. She reached the exit.

Then she was fleeing; down the ladder, through a long dark hall, down interminable stairs. Wind and rain battered against the outer door, but she plunged to it, ripped it open. The storm roared in, tore at her. She plunged out into it, out of the house of terror, away from its menace. Her feet splashed ankle-deep into water where a lawn should be, ten thousand devils of the tempest howled about her, pounded at her. But she was in the open. She was out of the house. They could not find her here.

Churning mud sucked at her stumbling feet. She fought the gale, reckless, uncaring. Where was she going? Where was there to go? Anywhere but back. Lightning tore open the black vault of the sky, filled the valley bowl with blue glare. Just ahead something sprawled in the water, the motionless body of a man.

The lightning glare was quickly gone, but Norma was on her knees now; she was lifting a limp head out of the flood. The instant's illumination had shown her Ted's gray face looking sightlessly up from the storm-made morass. She hunched in the mire, drew Ted's head on her wet lap and forgot that the tempest was overwhelming her with its downpour.

The girl's fingers fluttered over clammy cold skin. She moaned. She swayed forward, and her lips found his icy ones. Breath brushed her mouth. Not hers. His! Faintly, almost imperceptibly, he was breathing!

With this realization warmth surged back into Norma's chilled veins. She tugged at Ted's heavy form, struggled to lift it, to drag it back to the house she had just fled in terror! For Ted she would go back—for warmth was there, a fire. Restoratives were there. What else was there did not matter now. Ted Stone must have warmth, stimulants, or the dim spark of his life would flicker out. Nowhere else was there help for him.

But she could not move him. She was too weak. Despair, flooded her. Was Ted to die because she was a woman, because she had no strength? Was he to die here in the storm with shelter, warmth, only fifty feet away? She dug heels deep into the mud, tugged mightily. But the mud held its grip. She sobbed.

A nimbus of light was around her. A tall black shape was at her side. "What is it, Norma? What are you doing?" Silas Sabin spoke quietly. His lantern moved and its luminance revealed Ted's sodden form. "Oh, I see. Is he hurt badly?"

"Help me, Silas," Norma sobbed. "Help me get him inside." It was natural, somehow, that the old man should be there at her need. She did not question where he had been till now.

"Sure. Sure thing." Silas didn't like Ted, but he was going to help him now. Of course. Silas had always been kind, good. He had always fixed her dolls when they were broken. "Here, hold these and I'll carry him in."

He thrust the lantern into her hand. Something else gleamed in his other hand, something cold, metallic. Norma looked down at it and saw that it was a revolver. The realization that Silas was armed gave her comfort, seemed for an instant to cool her fevered brain through which scattered thoughts ran with the swift play of lightning. Yet—would it do any good to shoot a ghost?

Together they got Ted up to Silas' shoulder. It was easy enough for the two of them. With the old man leading the way with his burden, they started back toward the house where terror lurked.



III. — TWO WHO WERE DOOMED

INSIDE the only light was still from the fire. It danced redly around Juan's corpse on the floor, danced away as if frightened by his stiff figure. But Norma wasn't frightened, she told herself. There was no time for that. She had to help Silas take care of Ted. Prudence was frightened where she was tied to a chair.

Her eyes showed that. Funny that Silas hadn't untied her. She must do it herself—as soon as Ted was all right again.

Sabin put his burden down now. Ted's right arm hung limply down and water dripped from his fingers, made a pool on the floor. "I'll take his clothes off," the old man grunted. "You get hot water and a clean towel. There's some whisky in the kitchen too, in the medicine chest."

Norma started off. "There ain't nobody out there," Silas called reassuringly, "an' you can leave the doors open. I can see you all the way." She saw that there was dried blood on his face, and a blue bruise.

Norma had kept the lantern. Its light glinted yellow from the china closet in the dining room. She shoved a shoulder against the swinging door into the kitchen passage, fumbled for the foot catch that would hold it open. She couldn't find it at first, half-turned as her foot felt around. And then she saw that the parlor door was already closed!

Silas had said not to close it; she must have done so from habit. She ran back, got it open. Silas was bending over Ted. His arm was up; the gun in it was held by the barrel, and the heavy butt was sweeping down at Ted's head. The old man was slugging Ted with his gun!

Norma screamed. Her arm jerked, the lantern arced through the air. Its heavy base struck Sabin's shoulder and he staggered. The girl fairly flew across the room. Silas jerked toward her, and his clubbed gun rose to meet her. She clawed at his face, but he dodged. He struck at her and missed. Norma sprang again.

Silas jabbed straight out and the gun butt caught her in the chest. She reeled backward, trying not to fall. The revolver was reversed in Sabin's hand now, its muzzle snouted at her. She struck the wall and saw death grimacing at her from the old man's eyes.

"I wouldn't do that, Sabin, if I were you." The thin voice was like a knife-edge. Silas twisted to the archway; Norma, clutching at the wall, looked too. John Smith bulked just within the curtains. The snout of an automatic was almost lost in one huge hand, but it held a rock steady aim pointblank at Silas' head. The man's little mouth was pursed, like one reproving an unruly child. His tiny eyes were glittering beads. "I think it would be quite unwise."

Norma slid to the floor, half fainting, and looked at the lantern lying on its side. The flame had flicked out when she threw it and the chimney was dark. It was still hot and was scorching the carpet. Prudence would scold her for that...

Silas was staring at the fat man. He was quivering with anger, was hoarse with it. "Point that gun away from me," he husked. "Let me finish the job."

Smith's gigantic, obscene head moved slowly from side to side. "That isn't the way to do it."

"But what can I do? She knows now. She won't keep quiet."

Yes, Norma knew. She knew the kind old man she had trusted was a murderer. She knew he had been going to kill Ted, to shoot her. But why? Why?

"If you weren't an old fool she'd never have known. Nobody would ever have known. We could have kept on indefinitely. But you had to hog the game. You wanted it all for yourself. Now you've started something and you don't know how to finish. If you keep on you'll smash the whole thing."

Sabin's gun hand dropped to his side. The anger faded from his leathery face, despair replaced it. "It's smashed now."

"No. If you're ready to give up and do as I say I can straighten it out. You can continue and we'll go right on. What do you say?"

Norma listened, but could make nothing of this strange conversation. She knew dimly that it affected her. But her world had collapsed about her, physically and mentally she was utterly exhausted. She sat on the floor, her back against the wall, and stared straight ahead. Purely by accident she was looking at Ted. The gaping wound on his temple, raw and ugly, had stopped bleeding. The rain had washed it clean. A little color was seeping back into his cheeks.

Sabin was speaking, slowly, ponderingly. "Maybe you can straighten it out. If you want to. But—Juan?"

Smith shrugged. It was as if a mountain had heaved. "Juan doesn't bother me. He was getting troublesome and I'm glad to be rid of him. Why do you think I went out to the washroom, ostensibly, and left him alone? Do you think I didn't suspect you were planning something? I gave you your chance, and you took it. You confirmed my suspicions and put yourself in my power. How would you like to burn in the chair?"

Silas licked white, dry lips. The revolver thudded from his nerveless fingers. "You—you did that! You let me kill your partner."

"I hope you believe me. It's important for you. Because your only way out of the mess you are in is to do as I tell you. I can get along without you but I like the set-up here. I'm willing to go to some trouble to keep it as it is. That is your break. But I'll do it only if I can trust you. And I only trust a man when he is afraid of me and knows I am smarter than he is."

"I believe you. God knows I'm afraid of you." It didn't need the old man's statement to make that clear...His eyes, his whole cringing attitude, showed it. "I'll do anything you say."

For the first time the vast pink expanse of the man's face showed some expression. It was the merest ripple of fat-drowned muscles, but Norma knew it was gloating triumph. "All right," he squeaked. "The first thing is to tie up the girl. You did a good job on your wife; do as good a one on her."

So it was Silas who had bound Prudence! Why, Norma wondered dully.

His hands were almost gentle as he lifted the girl, put her in a chair and tied her with binder twine he dug out of his pocket. Too stupefied with fear and horror to resist, she let him lash her ankles to the chair's legs, her wrists to its arms. He was almost gentle, but the firelight was reflected in his bleared old eyes, and what Norma saw in them made her shudder. She remembered watching him butcher a calf once, long ago, and that same look had been in his eyes. She had run to her room and hidden under the bed. His kindness in the long years since had made her forget that, but she recalled it now.

Oh God! It was old Silas who was tying her up with that look in his eyes! Old Silas who had been a father to her ever since her own dad died!

She could still see Ted. The fire threw shadows over him and the way they danced made it seem that he was moving. Or had he moved, just a little? His face was no longer pale, which was certain. The man in the doorway saw that too, the man-mountain who stood there with the gun, still pointing. He spoke thinly: "Better make sure of the other one, Sabin."

Silas crossed to Ted, reaching into his pocket for more twine. Norma came alive. "Don't," she tried to yell. "Don't touch him!" But she could make only inarticulate noises under the gag Sabin had shoved into her mouth.

Her eyes shrieked mute protest as the old man worked grimly over the wounded, unconscious youth. He jerked him about with vicious enjoyment, grinning horribly. Norma threw herself forward, but the heavy chair held her. She slumped, staring at the gaunt old man, at the bulking, adipose Machiavelli who was watching heavily, without expression.

That one was the worst. His very lack of emotion made him inhuman, terrifying. An almost palpable aura of evil seemed to flow about him, dark and hideous. It reached Norma and flowed around her, clammily cold despite the warmth of the fire. It was like the emanation from an opened tomb.

"Very good, my dear Sabin. I do not think either of those will give you any more trouble."

"Trouble! What's the good of all this? Tyin' 'em up ain't helpin' any. This guy's supposed to be in court in the morning and he won't be there. Someone will be along looking for him by noon."

"They'll find him. I've been out. The creek's washed away the bridge down the road. His car is right there. In the morning it will be in the stream, and he will be inside. When he drove away from here last night it was dark and his headlights could not pierce the rain. He knew the road and drove fast anyway. He didn't see that the bridge was gone before it was too late."

Unholy joy lit Sabin's face. "That's the ticket," he chuckled. "And Norma was with him. That will take care of both of them. You're smart."

Horror rocked the girl as she shrank in the chair. They were going to kill Ted! They were going to kill Ted coldly, dispassionately, and leave his fine young body in the broiling, muddy waters. Smith's sourceless voice was mocking. "I'm smart and you'd better let me do the thinking. What good is it going to do you if the girl is dead?" Silas' expression changed, his jaw dropped. "If it is known that she is dead?"

"But...What then...? She..."

"We'll attend to her. But not—"

The fat man's tiny, glittering eyes flicked suddenly to Prudence. She was bent forward as far as her lashings would permit, listening avidly. There was rage in her face, and determination. Smith looked at Sabin thoughtfully. Then he seemed to come to a decision. "Come here," he said. "I'll tell you about it outside."

The curtain dropped behind them. The fire threw lurid light and black, flickering shadows across the corpse on the floor. Ted's eyelids fluttered open. He groaned and tried to move. His startled eyes found her and realization flared into them, helpless horror.

From the entry a sibilant hissing came, a horrible chuckle.

There was a long vertical line in the wall alongside the mantle that had not been there before. It widened, slowly. Norma heard the soft grate of a sliding panel. She saw a hand on the edge of the moving panel, a blood-smeared hand. The aperture grew. A resinous knot caught in a blazing log, jetted long flame into the room. A crouched dark figure was coming out of the wall, its face chalk-white, a thin stream of dried blood streaking down from matted hair, touching one corner of thick lips that were tight-pressed and grim. The other hand came into view and there was a knife in it, a knife that gleamed in the firelight.

The phantom glided out from the niche where it had appeared, the niche Norma did not know existed though she had been born in this house. Its progress made no sound on the soft carpeting, but her horror-struck eyes saw that the left foot was turned outward; unnaturally, dreadfully. She forced herself to look at its arms. Yes, the one in which the knife was clutched was shorter than the other. Her last hope, her last hold on reason, died within her. The figure did not have Jeefers' face by a chance resemblance. It was Jeefers. It was the handyman who was dead, whose skeleton lay on the creek bank!

It was at her side. The sunken eyes were alive with strange, crawling fires. The knife rose, poised above her. She closed her own eyes and waited for the death stroke. Better this, perhaps, than the fate those other two were scheming. A small voice within her brain piped a childish prayer. "Our Father who art in Heaven..."

Norma felt a tug at her right wrist, her left. She jerked a hand, and it was loose, free. Her eyes flashed open. Jeefers was kneeling, was slashing away the twine binding her ankles—His gory face turned up to her and a horrible grin seemed painted across it. He heaved erect, and jerked his head toward the secret door. Norma stared at him wide-eyed, uncomprehending. Again he motioned to the dark aperture, commandingly.

The girl twisted to her sweetheart, gaunt-faced on the sofa. She pointed to him, and the being of whose reality she was still uncertain nodded. It crossed the floor in that awful silent glide and slung Ted to its shoulder. It gestured once more to the dark, rectangular hole in the wall. Norma forced her prickling legs to move, got to it, passed within. She glimpsed stone steps diving steeply into darkness. As she started down there was a grating sound behind her and there was no more light.

A dank, musty smell was in her nostrils, mixed with a pungent odor and a heavy, sickeningly sweet aroma. There was no following sound. It seemed that she was descending into a tomb, a tomb where a dead man had found the semblance of life; a man, dead-alive, who was luring her to his sepulcher for some foul purpose. Panic swept upon her like an obscene, giant bat from the blackness and the strength went from her limbs. She stopped, groped for support against the rough stone wall of the passage.

From somewhere she got strength to continue. The stairs ended, gave place to a level floor. Her heels clicked as she moved forward, not knowing what else to do, and somehow the sound told her she was in a confined space. She brushed against something unyielding, felt for it, found metal under her hands, a geared wheel. It was as dark as the inside of a tar barrel here, silent as the grave. Then there was the rasp of cloth against cloth, and the soft thud of a lowered body; Ted's. She tried to say something, was reminded of the gag in her mouth. She lifted her hands to loosen it.

And on the instant she felt rough fingers grasp them; pull them swiftly, resistlessly, behind her back!

She struggled, yet almost before it dawned on her what was happening she was bound again, hand and foot, was lifted and laid on the unyielding cement floor. Some harsh cloth was pushed under her head to serve as a pillow. Then the unseen hands left her.

Here, with her ears close to the ground, she could distinguish the soft, sibilant hiss of the phantom's catlike tread. It moved away in what she thought must be the direction of the stairs. Then trampling on the wood floor above obscured the sound, footsteps that were carpet muffled yet quite distinct. She could make out two sets, one much heavier than the other. These must be Smith and Silas coming back into the parlor. The sounds stopped suddenly, and she pictured vividly the consternation on the faces of the unholy pair as they found their victims gone.

What would happen now? Prudence Sabin was still in the room up there. She had seen where they had gone, would she tell? Apparently she was not involved in her husband's nefarious actions, had objected to them. Otherwise she would not have been bound. Would she keep the secret?

A piercing vibration answered her question, a scream so high-pitched that it penetrated to the enclave where Norma lay. A scream, and then came the babbling, thin sound of an old woman's voice; a frightened old woman's voice. Norma shuddered. Prudence had not wanted to tell, but they had made her.

Suddenly the girl heard the panel grate open. A dim oblong of red light appeared directly above her, the reflection of firelight on a low ceiling. A crouched black shadow was visible in that oblong; another shadow cut its side.

Then a black arm rose out of the confused mass, an arm at the end of which the shadow of a knife showed. Norma saw that for only an instant, as it swept back into the mass.

A gun cracked sharply. Blackness slid back across the ceiling. A burbling, agonized scream sounded, and Norma heard the heavy thud of a falling body. Then there was silence again, heavy, ominous silence.

Which had gone home, knife or bullet, which had evoked that scream? The girl strained her ears, listening. Then she smiled, bitterly. Whoever won, apparently, it would make no difference to her or to Ted. All hands were against them, all the ruthless, cruel hands in this storm-isolated house of terror.



IV. — THE TORTURE CHAMBER

HEAVY footsteps went slowly across the ceiling. Smith, at least, was still alive. But he was retreating. For the sound of his steps died away. A door slammed. Then, from a distance, there was a rasping whir of an automobile starter, a series of pops, the screech of brakes, and the diminishing sound of a departing motor.

Someone was breathing, stertorously, at the stair-head. A striking match ripped the stillness and its tiny light almost blinded her. A candle took the flame.

Jeefers swayed, up there against rough board panels, as he held the candle, and his grisly countenance was more fearsome than before for the black gash of a bullet that had seared across his pain-tightened brow. He started down, step by careful step, and the light descended with him, descended into a small, stonewalled room. Its feeble rays illuminated a curious machine, all wheels and gears, the nature of which Norma could not determine. It showed a wooden closet against one wall, fastened by a huge padlock. It reached the floor finally, and showed Ted, still bound and gagged, limp and white on gray stone.

The handyman made his agonized way to Norma's side. He stood above her swaying. Then, slowly, gropingly, he set the candle down on a projecting edge of the machine. He fumbled inside his torn jacket, produced a flat flask, put it to his lips, and drank from it. His gaunt form shuddered. Then he turned, and, moving a little more certainly, passed around behind the machine, reappeared dragging a decrepit, stained wooden chair.

He set it down, lifted Norma to it. He groped in a pocket, brought out a roll of the same binder twine that Sabin had used. He passed a length of it about the girl's waist and fastened it so that she was bound to the chair. Then he picked at the knot around her wrists, untied it.

Norma was placed so that the machine was at her left. At almost the height of her shoulders there was a level metal plate of some sort. There was another about six inches above this, suspended from a long, threaded rod that passed through a heavy cast-iron bracket, and above the bracket a horizontal wheel was attached to the top of the worm.

Grisly horror shuddered through the girl as Jeefers' harsh fingers clamped about her left arm and pulled it across the lower plate. He held it there and his other hand manipulated the wheel. It revolved, and the upper plate came slowly down till Norma's arm was caught between the two, caught so firmly that tug as she might she could not extricate it. But the slow turning of the wheel stopped there, stopped just short of crushing.

The man leered at her. Then he glided away, somewhere behind her. Ted was behind her too, and she could only stare wide-eyed at a bare stone wall and see pictures of horror crawl across it. Jeefers was back. There was a long sheet of foolscap in his hand, and a pen. The candlelight caught a drop of ink on the nib, and it gleamed greenly. Jeefers put the pen in her right hand; instinctively her fingers closed about it. He held the paper where she could reach it. Then he spoke for the first time.

"Sign it," he husked, and his tone was the hoarse, rumbling voice of a nightmare. "Sign it, or I'll turn the wheel."

Norma focused her eyes on the document. Scrawled writing in fresh green ink danced across the white paper. But she could make out a date, three days before. Words, incredible words: "To Train Jeefers...my house and lands at Lloyd Corners in the County of...bounded by...to have and to hold..." It was a deed! A deed to the house and farm dad had left her. Her house and farm!

Suddenly she was clear minded. The horrible night began to take on meaning. There was something in the house, unknown to her, that was valuable. They had been battling over it, Sabin, and Jeefers, and Smith. They had been fighting among themselves, but the venom of their combat had involved her.

Her brain raced. Smith could only control the house through Silas. But Silas' domination here was almost at an end; in a month she would be married to Ted, and it was certain that Stone's first act would be to get rid of the old man. From the beginning they had disliked one another. That was why Sabin had wanted to kill Ted.

But Smith's plans had been more devious. If Norma disappeared, vanished without trace, the property would be held in the courts. Someone would have to take care of it, and who more logical than Sabin? For seven years, until she could be declared legally dead, his control would be undisputed. Her skin crawled as she realized what it must have been that the fat man had been whispering to Sabin out in the entry.

What was it that these man-wolves ravened to hold? It must be in this room, this hidden room.

Jeefers, working alone, had won. Would win if she signed this deed. But she could upset the document. Duress voided any signature. Ted had taught her enough law for that. Jeefers must know it too. Of course he did—and if she signed the deed he would not dare leave her and Ted alive!

All this flashed through her mind in a fraction of time. "Sign it," Jeefers husked again. "Sign or I'll twist."

Norma shook her head. If she signed she would be signing her death warrant, and Ted's. Eventually, perhaps, she would be forced to do it. She was a woman and could not resist torture. But she would fight. Maybe something would happen. Something must happen. God wouldn't let Ted die. Nor her. She would fight as long as she could and pray for delivery. She shook her head, unspeaking.

Fury contorted Jeefers' tortured countenance, and his mouth twisted, horribly. He got his gnarled hands on the wheel and turned it, slowly. More slowly still the upper plate of the press moved down. Its edge bit into Norma's skin, and crushing agony screamed in the bones of her forearm. Her finger-tips, beyond the press, were swollen with dammed blood.

"Will you sign?" the man grunted, and his face blurred before Norma's burning eyes. She shook her head, and his hands sought the wheel again.

A throaty bellow exploded behind her. A figure, gaunt and horrible, leaped past her and a fist crashed against Jeefers' thick lipped mouth. The room whirled dizzily around Norma, nausea retched her, and oblivion engulfed her.

* * * * *

"NORMA! Norma dear."

Her arm hurt. It hurt terribly. And her head. But warm lips were pressed against her own. A familiar, dear voice cried in her ears, "Norma!" She answered the kiss and her eyes opened. Ted's face wavered in front of her. Blood dripped from the reopened wound in his temple. A bruise was darkening on his cheek, and his lips were pulped, flecked with red. But his frantic eyes devoured her. She reached her good arm out and pulled him close to her. For a moment all the horrors of the horrible night were lost in a long kiss.

He drew away. "Norma, dear. Are you all right?"

She smiled wanly. "I—I'm all right, dear; just my arm. But what, what happened?" Her glance strayed past him. She saw Jeefers' body, contorted, prone and motionless on the floor. A dark pool gathered slowly near his head.

"I wasn't as unconscious as I seemed. I came to while Sabin and the fellow who called himself Smith were talking. Silas hadn't been very careful how he tied me; he probably thought I was out of the picture, and they didn't notice that I was working at the cords while I lay there. I had them almost off my wrists when Jeefers appeared, but passed out again when he threw me over his shoulder, and woke up just as he started his performance with the press. I had to move carefully so that he wouldn't notice me, and it took me a little time to get free."

"Is—is he—"

"Dead. Yes. He was pretty badly hurt anyway, and when I jumped him he was no match for me, though I'm no prize package myself right now. He got in one or two good slugs, but then I tripped him and he hit his head against the side of the machine. That finished him."

"Thank God. Oh, thank God! But Ted, what is the machine. What is it all about?"

"It's a hand printing press, like the one artists use for etchings, only larger. There's a copper plate in it, a beautifully executed engraving of Uncle Sam's best ten dollar bill."

"Then—then they were counterfeiters!"

"Yes. This was an ideal spot for them to work, isolated, easily guarded. All traffic has to come over Oak Mountain and the pass can be watched from here in time to clean up any traces. Sabin must have built this hidden room and staircase after your father died, must have been making a good thing of it for years. No wonder he objected to my hanging around.

"I see it all now. Smith was the one who started Silas on it, must have been the distributor. Then a lot of things came at once. Jeefers must have found out about it, and maybe he started blackmailing Silas. I was engaged to you; Silas would lose his place here in a month. And some kind of dispute sprang up between him and Smith's gang. The storm drove us all in here and he started out to kill us all, so he would be left with everything in his hands. The others fought back..."

Everything clicked in place. The lurker on the second floor, the one who had seized her from behind in the attic had been Silas. Silas was not in sight when she started up the stairs. Jeefers, previously attacked, and left up there for dead, had come to in time to fight Sabin and save her. Then he had conceived his own scheme for seizing the house and the outfit for making bad money. The storm had given them all the opportunity...

"That's about the size of it. But let's get out of here."

The candle gave them sufficient light to climb the stairs. Ted found the catch that released the panel giving access to the parlor. When it opened yellow light told them the current was on again. They stepped out...and stopped short at what they saw...

"How do you do?" a thin piping voice sliced across the silence. "I couldn't discover how to open that thing, so I've been waiting for someone to come up."

Smith was seated, comfortably, in the fireside chair where Norma had first seen him. His hands rested on his trunk like knee, and the little automatic snouted at them threateningly.

Norma froze. "What do you want here?" Ted snapped. "We heard you—"

"Go away. Yes, I did that to fool whichever of you might be still alive when the proceedings down there finished. I coasted back, and waited."

"What do you want?"

"Two things. First, the plates down there that Juan etched. They are the most perfect that have ever been made and in the circumstances cannot be replaced. The second is your silence. This little toy will take care of the latter and clear the way to the first. You can have two minutes to say your farewells..."

The huge, lascivious bulk of him was a mountain of evil as it overflowed the chair. There was no emotion on the blank hugeness of his face, neither triumph nor mercy. His tiny eyes flicked over Norma and seemed to strip the clothes from her. "Too bad the little lady must die."

Norma whimpered; white-faced and half fainting, unable longer to hold herself together, she slid to the floor. As she lay there in a crumpled heap, her hand touched the slumped, bloody body of Silas that lay there. Her fingers closed about the handle of Jeefers' knife that was plunged in his breast. The feel of it seemed to bring back in a rush her fast-fading consciousness. In the knife lay salvation—for herself and for Ted. Seemingly in one motion, she pulled it out and hurled it straight at Smith!

The distance was short, and desperation lent strength and direction to her arm. The knife point hit first, hit the counterfeiter's throat and ploughed in. The automatic spat but its aim was wild. Ted left his feet in a flying lunge, and his fist crashed into the fat, obscene face. But his effort was unneeded. Blood burbled from the fat man's lips, and he was a limp mound of jelly-like protoplasm in the chair. The gang that had invaded Hidden Valley was wiped out at last.

Outside, with a last rumble of thunder the storm ended. Ted pulled the shades up. A clear washed sun peeped over the edge of Oak Mountain, and somewhere the crow of a rooster greeted him.

Norma looked up from Prudence, whose cold hands she had been chafing. Her brow was puckered. "But, Ted. Whose skeleton was it that we stumbled over on the creek bank?"

The young man turned to her. "Nothing mysterious about that, dear. I thought of it while we were running for the house, but I couldn't have made myself heard above the howling of the wind, and afterwards, Lord knows, I had no chance to tell you. I was looking over some old records at the county office not long ago, and there was one report that rather interested me. It told of the search for a man who disappeared twenty years ago, somewhere here in Hidden Valley. He was crippled, deformed—and his name was Elmer Jeefers. He must have been Train Jeefers' father."<


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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