“Crawling Madness”, a Horror Novella by Arthur Leo Zagat, 1935

 

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Art by Michael Klimzak.

(First published in the March 1935 edition of ‘Terror Tales’ magazine.)

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The men who were to have helped Ann Travers and her injured, helpless husband had driven madly away, fear’s clutching fingers at their throats. Now Ann was alone on the desert—alone with him of the gaunt, Satanic features, and with the crawling horrors that slithered up from the grey moonlight to feed on human flesh!…


Table of Contents

I. Terror On The Highway
II. The Crawlers
III. The Whip
IV. Where Horror Fed
V. Despair Underground
VI. The Crawlers Close In


I

Terror on the Highway


 

Ann Travers awoke with a start. She lifted her head from the rough tweed of Bob’s overcoat shoulder and looked dazedly around. The roadster’s motor still thrummed the monotonous song that seldom had been out of her ears in the long week since they had left New York. Her husband’s blunt-fingered, capable hands still gripped the steering wheel, The desert still spread—bare, utterly lifeless—from horizon to horizon; and running interminably under the hood there were still the two faint ruts in the sand which the thin-lipped filling-station attendant in Axton had pointed out as the road to Deadhope. Yet Ann was uneasy, oppressed, aware of a creeping chill in her bones that matched the anomalous chill of the desert night.

“Awake, hon?” Bob broke the silence. “We’re almost there. Not much over a mile more.”

Ann’s lips smiled, but her weary eyes were humorless. “I don’t believe it. This trip is never going to end. We’re going on and on…”

“Wrong again. A mere five thousand feet from here, the gang I sent ahead to get things ready is waiting to greet their boss—Mrs. Travers.”

How Bob loved to mouth that title. She hadn’t gotten used to it yet—one doesn’t identify a new name with oneself in a week…

All at once now, Ann realized what change had occurred to weigh her down with vague fear since she had drifted off to sleep. The stars that had been close and friendly, their myriads a vast, coruscating splendor in the velvety black bowl of the heavens, now were pale, infinitely distant in a sky suffused with heatless, silvery radiance, forerunner of a not-yet-risen moon. The spectral luminance sifted down to paint the undulating, gaunt plain with weird mystery, and long flat shadows of mesquite bush and cactus barred the vibrant glow with a network strangely ominous.

Bob leaned forward, flicked a switch on the dashboard. The headlights boring the night dimmed. “Save battery,” he muttered, in explanation. Then, grinning, “Show my employer how economical her mine-superintendent can be.”

Ann twisted to him. “Bob! I don’t want to hear that sort of talk any longer. The silver mine Uncle Horvay left is as much yours as mine. More, because it’s just so much dirt except for your wonderful process. There hasn’t been anything taken out of it for years.”

The man threw an arm up in mock defense against her vehemence. “All right. All right. I’ll be good. Give me a kiss.”

Even while Bob’s lips clung warmly to hers, Ann’s eyes strayed past him. Ahead, the horizon was close, much too close, as if the road ended abruptly in a vast uncanny nothingness. It was just the crest of a rise, she told herself fiercely; but she could not rid herself of the eerie sensation that they were plunging on to a jumping-off place, a Land’s End over which the car would hurtle to fall eternally into some abysmal chasm.

Under the steady thrum of the roadster and the sough of its tires there was a hissing sound, like the breathing of some unseen monster. It was the whispering of countless grains of sand sifted along the desert by the wind, but it added to the spine-prickling certainty of impending disaster in Ann’s mind. This strange, grim land resented their intrusion, their intention to reopen the old wounds in its bosom that long ago had healed. Once before it had lured men with false promise into its deadly gullet, had spewed them out broken in pocket and health, grey with the patina of defeat. Now it was warning them to turn back—before it was too late.

Ann started at a new sound that filled her ears. It was a roaring from ahead, from the secret region beyond the ridge-crest. It was the thunder of an approaching engine, a ponderous engine plunging through moon-hazed night at breakneck speed.

The tremendous apparition on that too-close skyline was startling despite the trumpeted warning of its approach. The huge truck lurched over the ridge, careened down the road, hurtled straight at them. Bob’s horn blared raucous warning. Ann glimpsed his pallid, lined face, his blanched hands fighting the wheel. The truck blasted down upon them like a juggernaut, an avalanche of destruction. Ann screamed…

The gigantic front of the bellowing projectile loomed right above her. In that age-long, frozen instant of imminent demolition Ann saw the utterly white countenance of its high-perched driver: his eyes that bulged with a terror blinding him to the presence of the other car, of anything but some stark inner vision from which he fled; his twitching, bitten lips. She screamed again, more in horror at that which she read in the contorted visage than from her own peril.

Her shrill keening penetrated the brain of the truck driver. His big-thewed arms jerked, the careening vehicle swerved, scraped past the edge of the roadster’s fender. The swaying body of the dirt-truck, altitudinous above her, was crowded with husky, brute-jawed men. They were rigid in the grip of the same terror that invested their chauffeur. Their livid faces were color-drained masks straining through the dust-cloud that swirled after them. Their eyes were deep-pitted coals ablaze with black flame. The truck skidded…

The picture of soul-shattering, fearful flight flashing on Ann’s vision exploded in a grinding crash, a thunderous detonation of metal on metal, of bursting tires and smashing glass. She hurtled, asprawl, through a whirling world, thudded down on stinging, breath-expelling grit.

She looked up through dazed eyes. The truck was already yards away, its breathless haste not slackened at all, the red eye of its tail-light penduluming in short arcs as panic speed magnified the slight inequalities of the desert road. The sideward, yellow spray of the tiny lamp spattered, not on a license plate, but on an incredible figure hanging by clenched, bony fingers from a bracing truss under the truck’s tailboard and hidden by it from the terror-stiffened men above.

Ann saw the man clearly. The grisly fingers by which the rag-garmented, dust-greyed apparition was suspended from the catapulting vehicle seemed to probe her brain with horror. Skeleton-thin, he streamed out behind the hurtling lorry like a bedraggled pennant; whatever of clothing had covered his pipe-stem, bounding legs was torn away and they were greyed to the hue of putrescent bone. His feet, flesh-stripped as they dragged through the dirt of the turnpike, trailed two lines of scarlet blood.

Then the truck was gone. Only a low-lying band of drifting dust-cloud and two scars on the desert’s silvered surface showed that it had even been. Two scars between which thirsty sand drank red moisture, till no trace remained to testify that the grisly figure she had seen, or thought she had seen, was real.

The truck was gone! The meaning of that impacted on Ann’s bewildered mind. As on the trackless sea, so in the desert waste the unwritten law of Man’s obligation to his fellow in distress is stringent, inflexible. To have ignored it as the occupants of the lorry had, in rushing heedless from the wreck they had caused, stamped them as utterly vile—or inflamed by such devastating panic as had stripped humanity from them…

The sound of a groan cut into Ann’s consciousness. She rolled toward it.

The roadster was on its side, smashed to a jumble of twisted metal, burst rubber. Ann realized that only by the miracle of a lowered top had she been thrown free. Threshing arms, a body twisting up from chaos, falling back into it, showed her that Bob had not been so fortunate.

A sob tightened her throat. She pawed sand, pushed herself to her knees, heaved erect. The ground rolled like a tidal swell, staggered her, reeled her to a grip on the crumpled car-side. Bob groaned again, and she saw his twisted torso, the pale, tortured oval of his face.

“Ann!” His voice was a husked, hoarse whisper, pain-edged. “Ann! You’re—you’re all right?”

“Yes,” the monosyllable squeezed from between her icy lips. “But you—you’re hurt, darling. You’re terribly hurt.”

“A—little.” Bob gasped and collapsed to the sickening sound of grating bone. “I—can’t—get free.”

His eyes sought Ann’s face. Agony flared in them, was obscured by drooping, bloodless lids. Suddenly he was so motionless, so filmed over by the spectral moonlight with the very hue of death, that Ann’s heart stood still and her skin was an icy sheath constricting her trembling body. But his cheek was warm to her darting palm; his nostrils quivered with pain, and a muscle twitched across the taut cords of his stretched-back neck.

Ann’s teeth gritted. Her lips tightened to a grim, thin line. Her husband’s right leg was strangely askew. Its ankle, making a nauseatingly awkward angle with its calf, already was swollen to twice normal size and the foot was caught between gear-lever and emergency brake. No wonder he had groaned in anguish, no wonder he had fainted!

The next few minutes greyed to a blur of feverish activity, of muscle-tearing effort. How Ann accomplished it she never knew, but somehow she extricated Bob, somehow she lifted his hundred-eighty pounds free of the wreck. At last he was stretched out on the sand. Ann loosened his shoe, got it off. Then, staggering back to the car to pull seat-cushions out, she improvised a bed for him. She tugged and pushed at his inert frame till he was as comfortable as she could make him. She paused then, stared down at his big-boned face, appallingly white against the black leather.

Bob’s eyelids flickered open, revealing hot torment. “My boy,” Ann sobbed. “My poor boy.”

There was something besides pain in those queerly glittering eyes—an appeal, an urgent demand. “What is it, dear?” the girl gasped. “What do you want?”

The croak that came from him was unintelligible. But his arm lifted, motioned waveringly to the breast pocket of his coat.

Ann realized what worried him. She slipped a hand between the warm roughness of the fabric and his pounding heart. Paper crackled at the tips of her searching fingers. She pulled it out, the envelope containing the essential formulae for the process that would make profitable the working of low-grade ore from the abandoned mine at Deadhope. She pulled it out and held it up for Bob to see.

His mouth twisted, and his eyes signaled imperatively. Ann slid the envelope into her bosom, felt it crackle against her breast. After he had proved the worth of his process, Bob had told her, he could sell it for vast sums. Until then he must keep it secret. There were interests…

But her husband was once more unconscious. Her own limbs were water weak. She sank down beside him, squatted there, holding his hand in hers. Exhaustion welled up in her like a dark sea.


II

The Crawlers


THE moon had risen now over the ridge whence had catapulted the juggernaut of terror and destruction. It hung low in the sky, a great orange globe. It was so close, yet so infinitely far. It watched Ann’s distress with an impersonal stolidity and she was small, terribly small, in the unpeopled immensity of the desert, in the hush weirdly emphasized by the whispering of the restless sands. What else did the moon watch, there over the hill, there where the ghost town of Deadhope had spawned horror which had sent hard-faced, stolid men careening through the night in a paroxysm of terror?

Ann tried to wrench her mind away from fear, tried to tell herself that she ought to see what she could do for Bob’s broken ankle; that she ought to bathe his face, pimply with the cold sweat of pain even in his coma. In a minute she would—in a minute, but just now she must rest. She was so tired, so tired, and her body was one gigantic ache. And she was terribly afraid. Not only because of the breath of death’s wings that had brushed so close. Not only because of Bob’s hurt, his helplessness. But because of that which she had read in the faces of the men on that truck—because of that which had trailed behind the vehicle as it rushed away!

Recalling these, a pall of dread closed down, somehow visible in the sheeted moonlight lying spectrally on the limitless, lifeless waste around her. Lifeless? Was it some trick of the half-light, of her tired eyes, or was that shadow, that one way off there on the horizon, moving?…

It was moving. It was something gruesomely alive, indiscernible, flat against the sand, something that slithered slowly, that slithered over that ridge to the east, that vanished over the earth-fold beyond which was—what?

Ann’s scalp was a tight cap on her throbbing skull. That which had crawled along the desert surface, how long had it lain there? How long had its shadow lain immobile like the other shadows, shorter now, of the water-starved, grotesque foliage of the barrens? How long had it watched there, buzzard-like? Had it now gone to call its fellows, certain that there would soon be carrion here for them to feed upon?

“Ten thousand men laboring an hour apiece! That slide rule’s warped…” Gibberish in a hoarse, parched voice pulled her head around to Bob’s sweat-wet face, to his open, staring eyes. “DX over DY multiplied by cosign thirty degrees and you get two kilograms of Ag O Cl.” His hand was a burning coal in hers, his lips were black, cracked. He jerked up to a sitting posture, his other arm flung up over his head, and he screamed: “Ann! I’ve got it! I’ve got it, Ann! We’re rich. We’re rich!”

“Bob. Bob, dear. Lie down. Be quiet.” The young wife had both hands on the delirious man, was trying to wrestle him down. But fever-madness contorted his face, and with the strength of madness he tossed her about, fighting her.

“You can’t have it!” he screeched, in that awful voice that was not Bob’s voice. “You can’t have my secret. It’s for Ann. For Ann, I tell you. I won’t give it to you!”

The desert silence took his shrill cries and quenched them, but they rang on in Ann’s ears, and in her veins the blood ran cold with fear for her husband, her lover. Even as she fought to save him from his fever-demented self, tears streamed down her face, and sobs racked her. Oh, God! What was she to do? What could she do for him? If he got away from her?

As suddenly as it had come, the paroxysm of delirium passed. Bob slumped down. One word, one word more rasped from him. “Water…”

Water! He was burning with fever. Water would relieve him, water for his dry throat, water to bathe his torrid brow. Ann clawed to her feet, fought weakness, fought exhaustion to get to the car.

Water! The cans had torn loose from their straps on the crumpled running-board, the cans all travelers in the desert must carry. Here they were. Here in the sand was the red-painted one for gas, there the blue one for oil. The white one! Good Lord! Where was the white can, the water can? Breath sobbed from between Ann’s lips as she spied it, flung farther than the others, blending with the silver of the sands.

She tottered to it, bent to it, got hands on it and lifted it. It was light! Too light! Oh, God! Oh, merciless God! The depression it left in the sand was wet, though rapidly drying, and a gash in the white side of the round can showed where the water, more precious than a thousand times its weight of silver or platinum, had run out. There was no water!

There was no water, and on the pallet she had improvised for him Bob, her Bob, tossed and rasped out his agonized demand for—water. “Ann,” he husked. “Ann. I’m burning. Water. Ann, give me water.”

The distracted girl licked her own dry lips, let the mocking canteen slip from her powerless fingers, stood statuesque, rigid, numbed by a disaster more overwhelming than all the intangible fears crowing around her had foreshadowed. To be waterless in the desert! Even now the fever-wracked, thirst-tormented man was threshing on his bed of pain, was crying for cooling liquid to assuage the fire within him. What would it be when the sun came blazing up over the horizon to pour down its torrid beams on the shade-less, waterless waste? What would it be when the air, so chill now, quivered with insupportable heat and the sands became a fiery furnace, a searing hell?

Water! Old tales crawled out of the past to trail their awful warning through her anguish. Tales leathery-visaged Uncle Horvay had told, come from the Purgatory of his depleted mine to find a year or two of brooding sanctuary in her home. They had haunted her dreams, those stories of men creeping, creeping through the thirsty, interminable miles of the desert, black tongues hanging from blackened mouths—stark, staring mad after hopeless struggle and ripping their own veins to drink relieving death at last. One gibbering, skull-like visage seemed to form in the ambient sheen of the vacant night as it had gibbered at her in nightmares then. It changed to Bob’s square-jawed, bronzed countenance, changed back again to a mask of horror. Her larynx constricted to a soundless scream.

“Ann!” Bob’s cry came like the cry of a frightened child, through the shell of despair encompassing her. “Ann! Where are you? Ann!” He was sitting up, was staring about him with glittering, frightened eyes. He stared right at her and did not see her.

She got to him, knelt to him. Her arms were around him. “Bob!” she sobbed. “Bob, dear. Here I am. Right here.”

“Ann,” he whimpered, clinging to her. “Ann. Why don’t you give me some water? I’m so thirsty. So terribly thirsty. And my foot hurts so.”

Fever and pain had made of her strong, brawny husband a little, frightened child. Agony tore at her heart, clawed her brain.

“Help me, Ann. Help me.”

“Of course I’ll help you.” The girl got steadiness into her voice. “But you will have to be brave.” She loved him. Only now did she know how love strained in her every nerve, in her every sinew, how it yearned to him. She got his head down to her palpitant breast, held it there. He was quieter, his upturned eyes more reasonable. She would have to chance telling him. “Listen, dear. Our water is spilt. I’ll have to go and get some more. I’ll have to go and get help. I’ll have to leave you, but it will be only for a little while.”

“Leave me! Alone?” Fear flared in the pain-filled orbs that were fastened on her face. Then it died away. The lines of Bob’s face hardened, the lines of his mouth firmed. “Of course. Deadhope is only over the hill.” He lay more heavily against her breast. The fever was sapping what little strength he had left. “Kane…foreman. Tell him…hurry. I’ll be—all right—till he—comes.” Bob’s voice trailed into silence. His eyes were closed. He was asleep.

Ann slid him gently off her lap, on to the seat cushions, pulled his overcoat together, buttoned it with shaking fingers. She stood up and slipped out of her own warm garment to roll it and push it under his head for a pillow. Her lips brushed his and he smiled in his sleep. Muttered, “Ann. Darling.”

Then she was erect, was walking away from him, the desert sands clogging her footsteps. Walking toward the crest of the road-rise that now was silver-edged, shimmering as though it were the crest of a long sea-swell. Deadhope was over the hill. Deadhope from which two-fisted, hard-faced brawlers had fled in an extremity of blood-curdling terror. Deadhope where some awful menace lurked, more fearful because she could not know, could not guess its nature.

Deadhope where water must be, water and some conveyance, perhaps, that would enable her to carry Bob to shelter.

Behind lay mile upon mile of unpopulated, barren country. Only in the mystery ahead was there any reachable possibility of help for Bob. And so, although apprehension lay a leaden weight within her, and fear clawed her with gelid talons, and her veins were a network lacing her shuddering form with icy dread, Ann Travers stalked like a lonely specter through the ghost-grey moonlight. And far out on the desert another shadow that had lain motionless and watching, moved imperceptibly and slithered over the edge of the ground-swell to carry ahead word of her coming…

Ann climbed the ground-swell as though she were moving through some transparent, thick liquid. Though quite invisible, it resisted her slow advance so that she had to force through it, fighting for every inch of progress. It was barely a hundred yards to the summit of the rise, yet it was an endless journey as within her fear shrieked, “Look out! Danger ahead! If those men could not fight it, how can you hope to? Turn back. Turn back before it is too late!” Thus fear. And love answered, “Go on! Go on! At whatever peril to yourself, you must go on. Bob will die if you do not. Bob will die.” Love, conquering fear. “Go on before it is too late.”

She reached the last tiny rise at last, hesitated a moment, shuddering with cold dread, took the final step that brought her up and over the summit. Stopped again.

The desert pitched more steeply than it had climbed, so that it descended into a vast hollow filled with moon glow, ghostly, evanescent. It seemed brighter here, and momentarily Ann could see nothing but that all-pervading, silver-grey radiance investing sky and earth alike with brooding mystery. Then she made out the grey bowl of sand merging with the grey bowl of the heavens so that their joining was indiscernible. Far at the other side of the hollow, a maze of darker lines resolved themselves into gaunt, shattered timbers hazily outlining what once had been houses, dwellings.

Like silhouetted skeletons they rose, those ghastly beams, like stripped skeletons of a dead town. Here a tall chimney leaned askew, still faithful to a hearth that never again would gather about itself laughter and merriment. There the collapsed roof-poles of a more ambitious structure stabbed through a space that must have been a dance-hall, perhaps the very dance-hall Dan Horvay had cleaned out one mad and brawling night…

Ann’s gaze pulled away from the ghostly town, pulled nearer. Midway across the lower plain an angular-edged black blot lay athwart the shifting, luminous sands, somehow incongruous to the color-drained, incorporeal, dreamlike scene. This was the long barracks, Ann guessed, erected by the men Bob had sent to prepare the mine for its reopening, the men who had been driven away from here by some supernal terror. And her heart leaped as she saw, in the ebony side of it facing her, a yellow oblong flash out, an oblong of light, and across it shadows moved.

Someone had been left behind! Someone alive! Someone who could help her! The girl forgot her dread in exultation, sprang into motion. She was running down the side of the hill, her lips formed to a call…

The call was never uttered. Ann’s heels dug into the sand, braked her to a halt. Her hand came up to her frozen lips, stifling that cry. A nightmare paralysis held her rigid on the hillside, and the affrighted blood fled the surfaces of her body, sought the warmth of her pounding heart. Only her eyes were alive, only her fear-widened, aching eyes that were focused on something that moved, there ahead of her in the phantasmal sand, something that crawled slowly toward her with loathsome life.

It was movement only, at first, and the lengthening shadow of a mesquite bush. Then an arm writhed into the lunar luminance, a long, shudderingly emaciated arm, livid and ghastly. It lifted inches from the ground, dropped, and the tentacular, fleshless fingers of its hand hooked into the dirt, dug deep, pulled, pulled head and body after it, out of the shadow.

A head! But it was a gargoylesque mask, livid, hatchet-edged, sunken-socketed. The head of a thing long dead, of a woman long dead, crawling out from the shadow on her belly, crawling with slow malevolence toward the staring, motionless Ann.

Bedraggled, grey hair was stringy about that dreadful countenance. Clearly in the moon glow Ann saw saliva drool from between lips drawn back to reveal blued and toothless gums. In the awful visage there was no expression, no sign of human intelligence, so that that which slithered toward her seemed a soulless, imbecile thing, utterly brainless. But then the dragging, prostrate body came fully out into such light as there was, and a vagrant beam struck deep into the abysmal pits under the livid brow, and red hate stared out at Ann.

Power over her limbs came back to the girl in that moment, power to whirl, to run from the inexorable advance of that crawling, hateful, mindless thing. Sand spurted from beneath her feet. She plunged back up the slope down which she had come with hope and relief flaring within her. A queer low wail rose from behind her…

Abruptly the hillcrest before her changed form, took on an outline that halted her in her tracks and wrenched a groan of ineffable fear from her parched throat. For another crawling creature seethed over the ridge, rustled slowly through the sand! Another gargoyle face peered at her with mad hate, the face of a man this time, pitted and scarred and with its flesh sloughed away as though the owner had been rejected from a nameless grave!…


III

The Whip


 

THE horror slithered fearsomely down with a dread leisureliness that told how sure it was of its prey, how certain it was that it had cut her off. The woman behind, the man ahead—and Ann knew, knew without looking, without daring to look, that more of the crawling things were closing in on her from all sides, that they had enclosed her in a ring from which there was no escape!

Terror was a living thing in her breast, a thing that tore upward to her throat and burst from her mouth, in a piercing, shrill shriek she had not willed. Again she screamed…

A shout from below whirled her around, a deep-throated shout that somehow she knew had responded to her outcry. The woman who crawled was nearer, fearfully nearer, though Ann had been certain she had out sped the creature’s slow advance. But beyond her, whence the resonant shout came again, a second oblong of light broke the black expanse of the barracks, an opened door—and in it was framed a tall thin figure that stood there peering out.

That stood! The girl’s whirling brain seized on that fact to distinguish the newcomer from the ringing grey creepers who closed about to capture her for an unguessable fate. He was erect!

“Help!” she shrieked. “Help!”

The man’s head jerked to her. Though he was only a slim black silhouette against the saffron luminance, Ann knew he must see her plainly. “Help!” she cried again.

He was motionless, and the woman was crawling always closer, and behind her Ann could hear the approach of the snaking man as sand sifted away from beneath his crawling advance. Oh, Mother of Mercy! “Help! Save me!”

An ululation of sound burst over the desert, a long-drawn crescendo filled with threat, with unspeakable menace. It stabbed the girl’s brain with new terror, chilled her, rocked her with a veritable apotheosis of fear. It rose to an apex of quivering sound, cut short—and the silence that followed it was a-quake with the awful recollection…

Good Lord! Ann came up out of the bottomless sea of horror into which that cry had plunged her and was startlingly aware that the desert crawlers no longer advanced upon her, that they were gone, completely gone—as though they had been figments of her own distorted imaginings! Oh, Mother of Mercy! Was that truly what they had been? She shuddered at the appalling thought. They had seemed real, so real, and now they were vanished. Was she…?

No! She would not even phrase that question to herself. They had been real, too real. And there was covert enough for them to have hidden now, covert enough in the black pools of shadow cast by mesquite and cactus, in the rolling, uneven terrain. That’s what it was, of course. They were hiding…

Let it be enough that they no longer slid toward her, that their dreadful bodies writhed no longer toward her, that their skinny arms no longer reached for her with soul-shattering menace.

The man in the doorway beckoned to her. Had the strange outcry that had banished the grey creepers come from him? Ann started to him—froze once more. Who was he? What was he? Why was he here in this camp from which terror had driven all others? What mastery did he hold over the crawling people? Was he one of them? Fear flamed within her. She whipped around to run away, to run back to Bob…

But slowly she turned back. Bob was injured, dying perhaps. Down there was water for Bob, help for him. She must go down there, whatever the peril, to get it for him. She had promised him to return with help.

She drew a long breath into her tortured, aching lungs, and willed herself to move. Then she was running down the hill, through the sand, running the gauntlet of the weird creatures she knew must be all about her, though she could see no trace of them. She was running interminably while the very soul within her cringed with fear that this instant, or this, would bring the clutch of bony fingers at her ankle, would see a crawling, slimy creature spring up at her out of the very ground.

Incredulously, Ann reached the open door, plunged through. She whipped around as it banged shut behind her, as the tall man rattled a bolt into its socket. She stood gasping, shuddering, as he turned to her—and smiled.

“Hello,” the man said. “You’re Mrs. Travers, I know. I’m Haldon Kane, your foreman. Where is Mr. Travers?”

Ann gasped, catching her breath. “He’s out on the desert, hurt. We’ve got to get help to him, quickly. A truck came over the hill, driven by a maniac, and wrecked us, broke Bob’s ankle. He’s—”

“A truck. That must have been ours. Damn those fellows!” The oath ripped from between thin lips in a long, horse face. “When they’ve got their skins full of white mule they are a bunch of raving maniacs. I sent them down to Axton to get them away from here so you wouldn’t have to hear their caterwauls your first night in camp, and that’s what they’ve done.”

“They—they looked scared to me.” The explanation had been too pat. “As if they were running away from something.”

“Sure they were,” Kane responded smoothly. “Running away from the beatings I’d promised them if they were here when you and Mr. Travers arrived.”

A dark suit, complete with coat and vest and white collar, clothed his slender frame. Ann could not quite picture him victorious in a hand-to-hand tussle with the stalwarts of the truck. “But we oughtn’t to leave Mr. Travers alone any longer than necessary,” he said. “I’ll jump in the flivver and fetch him.”

“You have a car! How lucky! Come on.” Ann started to the door. “He was delirious when I left him. We’ve got to get to him quickly.”

Kane was somehow in her way, though he had not seemed to move. “It won’t take the two of us, Mrs. Travers. Hadn’t you better stay here and get things ready? Put up water to heat on the range?” He gestured vaguely toward the end of a long door-walled corridor that appeared to bisect the barracks. “Tear up some sheets into bandages and so on? From what you tell me he’s going to need plenty of attention, and we ought to be ready to act quickly.”

“But I can’t stay here alone.” Panic flared up in Ann once more. “Those awful creatures—”

“Won’t bother you here!” The smile was wiped from the foreman’s face, and momentarily a grim ferocity came into it that made the narrow countenance with its pointed chin somehow Satanic. “Not here…”

His insistence seemed somehow sinister. “I’m going with you,” the girl gulped. “I won’t stay away from Bob that long.”

She tried to shove past him. But his hand was on her arm, his long-fingered, bony hand. It stopped her. His black, glittering eyes took hers, were gimlets of black flame boring into her brain.

“I said you are safe in here. I’ll go bond for that. But if you put one foot over this threshold—” Kane’s voice dropped to an ominous, fearful whisper—”I could not protect you if I were the devil himself. The moon and the desert have spawned evil, prowling things out there, and they have scented you, and they are waiting for you.

“It will do your Bob no good if I save him and he wakes up to find you—what you will be when they get through with you.”

Shudders of icy dread shook Ann’s slender frame. Kane whipped around, was through the door. Momentarily Ann was rigid, incapable of movement, and in that moment the door slammed behind him, footsteps pounded on hard sand, a motor roared. The girl fought her hand to the doorknob. The car she heard roared away…

It was too late. He was gone, Kane was gone. And she was alone, alone in the hollow with—the foul spawn of the desert! Surging terror jerked her hand to the bolt, raided it home…

For a long time Ann remained in the grip of a nightmare paralysis, staring unseeingly at the rough-planed panels of the door. What was Kane? What was his power over the crawling horrors of the sands…?

Or had he any such power? Was she sure, dead sure, that the eerie cry that had cleared them from her path had come from him? It had seemed source-less, had seemed to invest the atmosphere from all directions at once…

But when he returned—if he returned—he would bring Bob with him. She must get ready…

The light here came from a lantern hanging on a hook beside the entrance. Ann lifted it off, turned to locate herself. The structure was hastily thrown together; the walls and partitions were of rough, unpainted lumber, joists and studding not covered. Angular shadows moved as she moved the lantern, slithered menacingly. The sharp odor of new-sawed wood stung her nostrils, mingled with the stench of man-sweat, the rubbery aroma of boots, the stench of machine-grease, of strong soap, of stale tobacco. The place was alive with the aura of occupancy, yet it was deathly silent.

Had Kane pointed to left or right when he spoke of heating water on the range? Ann could not remember. She would have to look. A curious reluctance slowed her movements as she reached for the driven nail serving as knob to the nearest door. What was behind it? What would she find behind it? She pulled it open.

Light struck into a big room, showed an overturned table, cards strewn over the floor, a lumber jacket in a heap in the corner, a smashed chair. Chaos. Had a drink-maddened brawl done this, bearing out Kane’s glib explanation of the flying truck? It might have, except for one thing. There was no smell of alcohol here, there were no flasks emptied or full, no glasses of any kind…

The nape of Ann’s neck prickled. Something had happened here. Something that had disrupted an orderly gathering into hasty, disorganized flight. Something about which Haldon Kane had lied.

But Bob would soon be here. Time later to investigate; now she must get a bed ready for him, hot water, bandages. A bed! Sheets to rip for bandages! None here. Maybe in this next room.

No. This was an office, the foreman’s office. A rude desk told her that, a small safe with its door open. Here too were signs of panicky departure. Blueprints spilling from a rude cupboard in the corner, a pen stuck point down in the floor, ink blotching the place where it had stabbed. Papers disorderly on the desk, held down by—What was it?

Ann took a step nearer, lifting her lantern to throw a stronger light. The black, slender thing coiled ominously on the table-top, ended in a thicker, wire-wound handle. It was a whip, a short-handled, cruel whip. A bull-whip such as she had seen mule-freighters use, in the borax mines on the journey here. But they had no mules here, no oxen…The end of the lash trailed over the further edge of the desk, was hidden by it. Oddly fascinated, the girl circled till she could see it.

The long lash ended in a snapper, a barbed thing such as she had seen raise welts on the tough skin of a mule. This one glistened in the light. A drop formed, dripped off, splashed on the floor. It was a frayed disk of red on the planed board. It was a splotch of blood!

An iron band constricted Ann’s temples, and the floor heaved under her feet.


IV

Where Horror Fed


 

From somewhere came a muffled roar. Ann’s head jerked up. It was the sound of a motor laboring, pounding against the clogging desert sand. Kane was coming back. Had he found Bob? Was he bringing Bob back with him?

The girl whirled, her feet pounded wood. She reached the outer door, rattled the bolt free, grabbed for the knob, twisted it and pushed…

The door would not open. Somehow it had jammed. The car sound was louder now, was right outside. Ann pushed again, threw her weight against the portal. It was immovable.

Good God! It hadn’t jammed. It was locked! Locked from the outside!

The car didn’t stop! Mother of Mercy, it hadn’t stopped! It had passed; its noise was growing fainter, was dying down. Was it some other car than Kane’s, perhaps? Or…?

Ann beat small fists on the wood, pounded till her hands were bruised and bleeding. “Bob!” she screamed. “Bob!”

Something like a laugh answered her, a mocking laugh, muffled by wall and by distance. There was a window somewhere on this side of the structure, a window from which light had glowed. The frantic girl twisted away from the locked door, toward it.

Then she was at it, was peering out through glass. Her own face stared back at her from blackness. The lantern glared behind it. The lantern! Of course! Its light was stronger than that outside, was making a mirror of the pane.

Whimpering, Ann smashed the lamp to the floor, reckless of fire. She could see through now, could see the desert spectral in the moonlight, could just see a dilapidated, open flivver plowing toward the gaunt timbers of the ghost town. Someone was hunched over the wheel, and beside him a body folded limp over the car side, its arms hanging down, its hands just touching the running-board. Bob!

The window was framed glass; its sash did not lift. The girl flailed at it with her bare hands. Glass splintered, crashed. Her fingers were bloody, her knuckles gashed. She plucked shards from their hold in the frame, uncaring. She lifted to the high sill, squirmed through. Jagged edges of broken glass caught at her, tore her frock. She dropped to the sand outside, sprawled. Then she exploded to her feet and was running toward the ruins of Deadhope.

Down there, where those skeleton timbers affronted the sky, nothing stirred. Nothing at all. While she had battered at the window the laboring car had vanished into nothingness as the crawlers had vanished. She could see it no longer, could no longer hear it. But she could see the tracks it had left in the desert, long tracks reaching clear into the mazed shadows of the skeleton village. She could follow them. Staggering, stumbling, reeling, she could follow them to where Bob had been taken.

The soft sand sifted from beneath her flying feet, gave no footing. Even through her desperation, her frenzy of anxiety for her husband, her soul-sapping fear for him and for herself, the feeling of eerie unreality flooded back on her that first had manifested itself when she awoke in the car to see a world flooded by ghostly moonlight. The naked timbers ahead seemed to retreat as she ran, as if she were spurning a treadmill beneath her, an eternally wheeling treadmill on which she would run forever and make no headway. Pain strapped her leg muscles, stabbed her bursting lungs. Yet somehow she seemed no nearer her goal. No nearer…

The pallid desert all about her was blotched by shadows that weirdly were other than shadows. The sands shimmered like water under the moonlight, like water furrowed by the wind, swirling into a whirlpool. Ann gasped, halted her headlong rush, her heels digging into the silt, her eyes staring. There was a circular, wide wallow here where the desert had been plowed up, torn, trampled by some terrific struggle. As though some great beast—or some man—had fought here long and unavailingly against a ravening something that had dragged him down at last.

Yes, here was the mark of shod feet and here—blood-darkened—the depression his body had made when it had come down. The shifting sand had kept the shape of the impact because it had been wetted—wetted red by life-fluid spurting from severed veins. And from this spot a long furrow started to run along with the tire-tracks Ann followed! Vividly, as if the tragedy were being reenacted before her pulsing eyes, the girl could see what had made it: the gore-bathed corpse pouring blood; the slimy, crawling things dragging their victim to their lair…

The record was plainly written—too plainly—in the sand. No wonder they had fled in crazed terror from this dire hollow, the half-mad men in the truck. No wonder they had not dared to stop when Bob—

Bob! Oh, God! He was somewhere in there, somewhere in the ruined town ahead to which the crawlers had dragged their prey! Ann’s larynx clamped on a scream, and she was running once more, was following the twin tracks of the flivver in which Bob’s limp body had been, was following the blood-darkened furrow that gibbered at her an awful promise of what it was to which her lover had been taken.

On and on, endlessly, she ran, till—suddenly—barred shadows fell across her and she leapt aside, panting…

It was only the shadow of a tumbledown house, stripped of its siding. Others clustered around, the rotted skeletons of a vanished town, the fleshless bones of Deadhope! But where was the flivver? Where was Bob?

The girl reeled, paused, gasping for breath. She staggered against a rotting beam, clung to it, gagging, retching. Her heart pounded against her heaving ribs as though it would break through the thin confining wall of her chest. She lifted a hand to her breast to still it, felt paper rustle under her hand. Paper! The formulae of Bob’s process. Bob’s secret.

Bob’s secret! Dizzy, nauseated, afraid, the thought pounded into Ann’s brain. Bob’s secret! She must keep it safe. She glanced around with eyes crafty, not wholly sane. No one was in sight. The jumbled beams against which she leaned screened her from observation. Here were two that made a cross, an inverted cross, and beneath them was another that lay close to the ground so that there was only a slit beneath it. Ann clawed at her bosom, clawed out the precious envelope, shoved it under that beam. There was no sign of digging to betray that cache, but the envelope was out of sight and it was marked by a sign she would not forget. The sign of the inverted cross. The sign of Satan.

The momentary rest somewhat restored her. She could breathe again and her vision had cleared. There were the tracks, the rutted tracks of the car that had carried her Bob, winding among the strewn timbers of the ghost town. And there, still marching with them, was the grim furrow dug by that which had been dragged here. Ann’s eyes followed that grisly spoor, probed a pool of shadow, some fifty feet ahead, to which it led.

It wasn’t a shadow! It was a grey-black shapeless mound in the barred moon glow, a mound that heaved restlessly, a mound that was animate with gruesome life. Through the desert hush sounds came clearly to Ann, smacking sounds, low whimperings, the scrape of a gnawing tooth on bone. That gruesome shape was feeding! On what?

A hand squeezed Ann’s heart, and an awful fear sheathed her with quivering cold. The furrow of the dragged corpse led straight to that squirming; pile, and the tracks of the car in which Bob had been brought here! What was it that composed that grisly meal?

Sound rasped through the girl’s cramped larynx. A whine, a whimper—it was not a word. It was not anything one could have recognized as human speech. But perhaps He understood it. He to whom that prayer of a woman’s tortured soul was spoken. Perhaps He knew that the racked brain of the devoted wife was saying, over and over: “God! Dear God! It isn’t Bob. It isn’t It can’t be. Please, God, don’t let it be Bob.”

Perhaps he heard and touched that loathly tumulus with his finger. Perhaps Ann’s sob of agony and dread reached the ghastly feeders. At any rate, the heaving mass split apart. Grey, earth-hugging forms slithered away from it, like satiated vermin from their putrid feast, slithered through the sand, out of range of Ann’s vision. She did not see where they went, saw nothing but the motionless something to which her burning gaze clung, that which they had left behind. A nausea retched her stomach, but she could not see—she could not be certain what it was at which she stared.

She could not be certain, and she had to be. She pushed herself away from the beam against which she leaned, took a reeling step toward—toward the motionless, awfully motionless debris ahead. Her legs, water-weak, buckled, and she tumbled headlong into the sand.

She moaned, and then was crawling toward it, was shoving palms down into gritty, cutting sand, was lifting herself on breaking arms, dragging herself onward little by little. And all the while the dread question grew in her shaken mind like a bubble blown in acid, burst so that she did not know why she crawled, and grew again.

Time was a grey nothingness that flowed over her. The anguish of her ripped hands, of her torn knees, was a pulsing torment she did not feel. She was mumbling, “Not Bob. God. Not Bob,” and she did not know what it was she said nor why she said it. But she kept going, eternally, hitching through the sand, dragging the agony of her body and her soul to a destination she had forgotten but that she knew she must reach.

The pallid desert must have pitied her then, the desert and the shadows that moved on its spectral breast and were not shadows. Even they must have pitied her, the leprous-faced horrors that crawled—or did They think her one of them, this tatter-clothed, crawling woman with the contorted features of dementia and the eyes glowing red with madness? At any rate they let her pass unscathed until her out-reaching hand fell upon something that was not sand, something that rolled and left a red, wet stain on the sand where it had lain.

The clammy, shuddersome feel of the thing upon which Ann’s hand had fallen shocked her back to reason. To reason and the flooding horror of her search. She shoved up on extended arms, arching her back; she looked dazedly about her.

Madness pulsed in her once more as she stared at that which the crawlers had left—at tattered, gnawed flesh; at a torso from whose ribs meat hung in frayed strips, at a skull that had been scraped quite clean so that the grinning bone glowed whitely in the lunar rays. And everywhere on the pitiful remnants that once had been human were the marks of teeth, of human teeth!

But even through the swirling blackness that mounted in her brain, the gibbering question still screamed its query. Who was it? Bob? Was it Bob? How could she tell? How could she tell when there was no face left on this, no skin?

Whimpering, Ann looked hopelessly down at that upon which her hand still rested. It was a bone that had been torn loose, a thigh-bone. Hanging to it by a shred of ligament was the long calf-bone, bits of flesh still adhering, and the foot was quite untouched. The foot! The right foot!

Ann remembered. It was Bob’s right ankle that had been broken!

And this—right ankle was—whole!

Oh, God! Oh, thank God!

Something gave way within Ann and she slid down and down into weltering, merciful blackness…

* * * * *

SOMEONE was shaking her. Someone was whispering, “Mrs. Travers. Mrs. Travers. Wake up.”

Someone was bending over her. Ann’s eyes came open, and she saw Kane’s narrow face in the moonlight, its lips writhing. Somehow she was on her feet. Bone crunched under her heel, but she did not notice it. Her hands shot out, gripped the lapels of Kane’s coat.

“Where is Bob?” she shrilled. “What have you done with him?”

Strong fingers clutched her wrists, tore them away. “Come out of here,” Kane said. “Quickly.”

A howl sliced across the words, a howl of animal threat. Arms went around her and lifted her, cradled her. The man was running, breathing hard, was plunging through the vague moonlight that glowed around them. Ann twisted around in the arms that carried her, saw Kane’s face above her, sharper, more Satanic than ever as its eyes slitted dangerously, as lips curled away from dull-white, huge teeth in a narrow mouth.

She beat at his breast with futile thrusts. “Where’s Bob?”

He carried her across the silvered desert, carried her toward the black bulk of the barracks. “I don’t—know,” he gritted. “I don’t know.”

Ann squirmed, fighting to get free. The grip of his arms was unrelenting, inescapable. “You lie,” she spat at him. “What have you done with him?”

“I’m not lying,” the man grunted. “He wasn’t there when I found the wreck. He was gone.”

Fury was a red flame swirling in Ann’s brain. “You lie,” she screeched again. “You’ve got him somewhere in there, somewhere in Deadhope. I saw your flivver pass the house and I saw him in it.”

“My—flivver?” The nostrils of his tremendous hooked nose flared, and white spots showed in the thin-drawn skin on either side of it. “Not mine. I have no flivver. Look, this is my car.”

They had reached the entrance to the barracks. A car puffed before it, the engine running. It was an old Dodge sedan! A Dodge? A sedan! But the car Ann had seen dart past and vanish into the barred shadows of the ghost town had been a Model T. It had been a touring car in which Kane had brought back Bob’s horribly limp body…

Wait! She had not seen the driver clearly. Was it Kane? She could not be certain. Oh, God! She was not certain it had been Kane.

“He was gone when I got there,” Haldon Kane said again. Ann had ceased struggling. He set her down. But he had to support her as they took the few further steps to the barracks door, so weak she was from exhaustion, from terror and wild anxiety. “I found the overturned roadster, the cushions by its side on which he had lain. But no one. No one living…”

There was a curious emphasis on the last word. Ann twisted to him. “Living! Then there was…”

A veil dropped across the glitter of his eyes. His free hand made a curious gesture, as if he were pushing something away from him, something revolting. “Never mind that.” His lips seemed to move not at all. “It isn’t—important.” Then, “Mr. Travers was not there. But I don’t understand—you said you saw him in a flivver, saw someone taking him down to the old town?”

“Yes.” The monosyllable hissed from between Ann’s compressed lips, as she fought to expel a grisly speculation from the maelstrom of her mind. “I heard it, saw it. But it disappeared down there—as though it were—something unreal.” They had reached the barracks door. She twisted to Kane, fear of the crawlers forgotten in a greater fear. “But you must have seen it, too! It had to pass you.”

“No.” A muscle twitched in his hollow cheek. “No. I saw nothing. Nothing passed me.” The response dripped dully into a crystal sphere of heartlessness that seemed suddenly to enclose the girl. “Nothing. No one.”

A shadow moved out in the desert, sand slithered. Kane’s pupils flickered to it. His hand darted to the doorknob—and the portal swung open effortlessly. But it had been locked—locked—minutes before!

He shouldered Ann through, came into the dark hallway himself and had the barrier shut in one smooth flow of movement. Red worms of fear crawled in his eyes.

“That’s better,” he breathed. A pale, eerie luminance sifted in through the window Ann had smashed, flowed over him, showed a toothy smile that was palpably forced on his narrow face. “Better. But where’s the lantern?”

Ann jerked a pointing hand to it, where it had guttered out. “I—dropped it.”

Kane flashed a curious glance at her, then at the lantern. From that to the smashed window. “Have to get that fixed,” he snapped. “At once.”

Then he was gone!

The girl was startled. Then she realized that as she automatically had followed the direction of his glance he had soundlessly taken the one necessary step into the foreman’s office, had closed its door. She heard his footsteps moving about, heard the rasp of a pulled-out drawer, heard a dull thud as if something heavy had dropped. Then there was no sound in there, no sound at all…

Minutes dragged past as Ann stared with widened eyes at the blank wood. Coils seemed to tighten about her, gelid coils of nameless dread. Certainty grew upon her that something had happened to Kane in there—something that all the time he had feared. It was her fault. Hers! In breaking the window to gain exit she had breached his defenses, had made a way for something to enter—something that had lurked in the darkness of that room…

She backed, inch by slow inch, till she felt the outer door pressing against her. Her hand lifted behind her, her fingers found and closed about the knob. She turned it, pushed, her apprehensive gaze still fixed ahead.

A faint breath of air stirred in through the slitted opening she had made, and with it came a vague, hissing sound. The whispering voice of the desert? Or the sound of the crawlers, closing in? Panic scorched her breast, was a living flame in her brain. She pulled to the door, shot its bolt with shaking, bloodless fingers. Fearful, horribly fearful as she was of what might lie in the secret silence of the room from whose entrance her gaze had never wavered, she was more terrified still of the creeping things she knew prowled the sands. She dared not go out there again. She dared not stay here, not knowing with what peril she was housed.

Ann whimpered, far back in her throat. She could not remain forever rigid in the grip of an icy fear. She must—do something—or in minutes she would—go mad.

There was no sound in the darkly brooding barracks. No movement. There couldn’t be anything, living, in there. She must know what had happened to Kane. At all costs she must know. Or—give herself over to gibbering madness.

She forced unwilling limbs across the narrow corridor. Its nail-handle was hot to her frigid clutch. The door came creakingly open. Her body blocked light from the obscurity within, but something lumped on the floor ahead, a shapeless something that was fearfully still. Ann fought herself over that dread threshold, into the gloom…

A shadow came alive, swooped down on her, engulfed her! Not a shadow, but cloth, black cloth enveloping her, smothering her, clamping her threshing arms, her flailing legs, clamping tight and holding her immobile. She was being lifted from her feet, was being carried off. And through the thick, blinding folds of the shrouding fabric a laugh sounded, a hollow mocking laugh, the laugh that she had heard while a battered flivver had chugged past with Bob, with her limp and broken husband.


V

Despair Underground


 

Ann could fight no longer. Bruised, battered, her soft flesh torn, her brain a whirl of agony and terror, she sagged, strengthless, flaccid. Consciousness shrank to a minute spark in the vast, dark limbo of her fear. Terror piled on terror, fear on fear, had brought her at last to that ultimate point where her distracted mind must find refuge within an enclave of numbed, despairing acceptance of horror or be wholly shattered.

She was only dimly aware that the arms encircling the bundle they had made of her were so powerful that they handled her weight with utter ease. Only vaguely did she feel shambling, level progress. It did not matter now what became of her, now that Bob was dead…

But she did not know that Bob was dead. Perhaps he was still alive. Perhaps she was being taken to him now, to the place where he had been taken. Hope stored within her—a faint thread of pitiful hope that again she might be near him, might see his face, might for an instant press her lips to his dear mouth before she died. But was it to death she was being borne? To merciful death?

And once more she was awake to ineffable fear, to grueling terror. If that which was carrying her off, human or ghoul, desired only death of her, he could easily have killed her in the same unguarded moment that he had overcome her. He had not. Why?

Neither this searing, dreadful query nor the faint hope that preceded it was destined yet to be answered. Quite suddenly Ann felt herself deposited on some soft, high pallet. A slow chuckle came muted to her ears, and the shambling footfalls faded away. Then silence enfolded her once more, and helpless dread.

The girl lay lax, straining to catch some murmur of sound. She heard only the pud, pud of her own pulse. Had her captor gone off? Was whatever doom that lay in store for her postponed?

Ann chanced tentative movement, held her breath as she waited for its effect. Nothing happened. Strangely, this was more frightening than a heavy-handed rebuke, a threatening voice, would have been. She was alone. He had left her alone. How sure he must be of his power to have done that, of the impossibility of her rescue!

Rescue! Who was there to rescue her? Kane? Haldon Kane lay dead on the office floor. She had seen him, had seen in the gloom a mound of blacker black that must have been he, lying lifeless.

Even in her extremity of dread, Ann found time to regret her suspicions of the man, her certainty that it had been he who had vanished with Bob into the ghost town, that he was the master of the creepers. She realized now that the crawling fear she had felt in his presence had been the contagion of his fear. The man had been afraid, had been as terror-stricken as those who had careened in mad flight from this doomed hollow in the desert. But he had remained, faithful to his charge—had remained here to guard the mine for herself and Bob and had met the death he feared in doing so.

What was that sound? During interminable minutes Ann had tossed, had struggled unavailingly to free herself of the muffling fabric which held her rigid, had twisted, jerked, fought until sheer exhaustion had forced her to quit. Then for an endless time she had lain quiescent, gathering strength to struggle again…

It was close at hand—the slow slither of a heavy body through sand, the almost imperceptible hiss of labored breathing. It came closer, and Ann was quivering, the cold sweat of terror dewing her forehead, her breasts aching with its agony. They had her at last, the crawlers, the belly-creeping, snaking Things with the form of humans and the dead eyes of the damned. At last they had come for her, and she was helpless to escape them.

A hand prodded her, fumbled along the fabric within which she was muffled. Ann drew in breath through the constricted cords of her throat. The sound it made was a screeching, sharp-edged squeal.

“Hush,” a muted voice hissed warningly. “Hush.”

Fever ran hotly through Ann’s veins, exploded within her skull. Good—Lord! Who was it that warned her to silence? Whose hands were they that groped down her flanks, that pulled, tugged at the lashings about her ankles? Bob’s? Oh, Merciful God! Could it be Bob, escaped somehow, come somehow to find her, to release her from terror?…

The bag pulled up over her ankles, her knees, stripped up over her torso, caught momentarily under her chin and then was entirely gone. Ann squirmed, twisted about, gasped. Closed her lips on the glad “Bob!” that had almost escaped them.

This wasn’t Bob’s face, this gaunt, long countenance silhouetted against dim moon-glow in a broken-arched aperture across which a shattered beam—sprawled. It—wasn’t—Bob’s. Hope seeped out of her, almost life itself.

“Oh!” she gulped. “I thought it was my husband.”

“Quiet,” Kane breathed. “Quiet, Mrs. Travers, or we may be heard.” His lips were paler, tighter, his eyes more narrowly slitted, more piercing. A curious excitement danced in them. “I’ve taken an awful chance tracing you here. We’re both in terrible danger and you must not make it worse.”

“What is it? Who is it that’s doing all this? What terrible things are happening here?” Pushing herself up, Ann whispered the questions. “I won’t move till I know.”

“For God’s sake!” he groaned, his pupils flicking into the darkness beyond her. “If it is known that I am still alive, that I have freed you…” His gesture finished the sentence. “We’ve got to get out of here.” His skin was fish-belly grey with—was it fear…? “Come. Hurry.”

The urgency of his speech, his evident terror, got through to Ann. Once more he had risked his life to save her. She had no right to impede him now. And yet…

“Can you walk?” His left arm reached for her. Odd how long and slender his hand was, how it clawed vulture-like. Odd that his right should be concealed behind his back. What was it he hid from her?

Ann avoided his grasp. He had fought for her, sided with her. He was her only hope for safety. She must be mad indeed to shudder with revulsion from his touch as though he were something unclean.

“I can walk,” she muttered. “You needn’t help me.”

“Go ahead, then.” He turned toward the radiance-silvered opening, pointed with a preternaturally long, straight finger. “I’ll follow.”

A tocsin of alarm sounded deep within Ann at the thought of letting him get behind her. But she could not refuse. She slid by him, shrinking; she almost reached the light.

“Wait!” Kane spat. “Wait.”

Ann twisted. “What…?” she gasped. “What is it?”

He was startlingly close, towered gauntly gigantic above her. “We may not get through.” His voice was a husked whisper. “If you have anything you wouldn’t want found, any—papers, for instance, give them to me. I’ll hide them here.”

“Papers!” the girl blurted. “I—” She bit off the words. Good Lord! Why should he ask that now? Her mouth was suddenly dry. “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about.” How would he know that she carried any papers unless he had wrung the information from Bob? “What do you mean?”

There was a subtle change in Kane’s face. Through their slits his eyes were ablaze with a strange eagerness; the long lines from their corners to his strangely pointed chin had deepened. “Travers was bringing out the formulae for his new process. They weren’t in the luggage in your car, and—” He checked himself, tried again. “And…”

“And he didn’t have them on him!” Ann almost shrieked the accusation. “You’ve searched him! It was you that brought him in.” She leaped at him, her hooked fingers clawing at his saturnine eyes. “What have you done with him?”

Kane’s hidden hand leaped into view. In mid-spring Ann saw the whip in it, butt reversed. The wire-wound handle crashed across the side of her head, sent her down.

She sprawled, half-stunned, and Kane bent to her. His whip hand pinned her to the ground; the other was on her thighs, was scrabbling frantically over her body, was violating the privacy of her breasts. “Where are they?” he snarled. “Where are they?”

“Where you can’t get them,” Ann mouthed. “Murderer!”

His countenance now was utterly Satanic. “You’ve hidden them, damn you,” he spat. “You’ve hidden them.”

“Yes.” There was nothing left to her now but defiance. “Yes. I’ve hidden them where you’ll never find them.”

His hands gripped her shoulders, shook her, worried her as a terrier a rat. “Tell me where they are,” he snarled. “Where are they?”

“I’ll—never—tell,” Ann said as he shook her. “You can—kill me—and I won’t—tell.”

“You’ll tell!” Kane surged erect. The whip in his hand lashed up, swished above his head. “You’ll tell.” It whistled down, coiling, writhing like a thing alive.

Screaming, Ann rolled from under just as it pounded down on the spot where she had been. Dust spurted as the snapper at the lash’s end dug dirt. Kane snarled once more and jerked his terrible weapon up again.

Terror exploded in Ann, blasted her to her feet in a lightning-swift splurge of effort that had its impetus from something other than her will. The snakelike lash whipped around her legs, seared from her a shriek of purest agony. It jerked, swept her footing from under her. The girl crashed down. The whip jerked free and curled above Kane’s head for another blow. Savagely his arm arced down.

But the lash did not descend. It tautened, jerked the whip butt from Kane’s hand. The button-like snapper had caught in some inequality of the dark roof. A bestial snarl spat from Kane’s twisted mouth; he whirled savagely and snatched at the thong as it swung from some hidden fastening. It pendulumed, avoided his first rage-blinded grab. Ann writhed away into the darkness, pitched over the edge of a steep incline.

Somehow she was on her feet. An animal bellow from behind catapulted her into hurtling speed. Footsteps pounded behind her. The descent pitched steeply and now she was more falling than running. Her footing was no longer sliding sand. It was a flooring of small stones that rolled beneath her, that threw her suddenly sidewise.

One flailing arm struck a wall; she gathered herself for the crash of her body against it. That crash never came and she was really falling now. She pounded down on—on something alive that squealed, that slid out from under her and scuttered away in the darkness!

The rattling thump of pursuit pounded above her. Passed. Ann lay in pitch darkness, dazed by the shock of her fall, quivering from the stinging torment of the whip blows, shuddering with revulsion at the cold and clammy feel of that upon which she had thumped down, retching with terror at the prospect of Kane’s return. He must soon realize that she had avoided him by tumbling into some side passage off the lightless tunnel. He would come back to seek her. And he would find her there helpless to escape his fury. She was done, completely exhausted. She could flee no further.

But his pounding footsteps kept on, faded into distance, into silence. Slow, timorous hope began to grow in the dizzy turmoil of the girl’s mind, matured into certainty. Her blood ran a little more warmly; strength commenced to seep back, and the ability to think.

But thought brought despair blacker than the Stygian gloom in which she lay. Bob was dead, undoubtedly he was dead. Kane had only half lied when he had said he had found nothing alive at the wreck. He had left nothing alive! It was Bob’s corpse that had slumped over the side of his flivver, Bob’s corpse he had hidden somewhere here. Somewhere in this underground maze that must be the workings of the old mine. Somewhere…

A noise cut off thought. A tiny noise, sourceless, almost inaudible. A sensation of movement rather than of sound, of furtive movement paralyzingly near. There it was again! The flicker of a breath. A moan so low that only in the breathless hush of the underground could it have been heard.

The knowledge that she was not alone, that something alive was here in the dark with her, brought no fear to Ann. She was beyond fear. She was beyond emotion. With the conviction that her husband, her lover, was dead, she too seemed to have died. Only her body was left—her aching, torn body—and her senses. But something like a dull, dazed curiosity made her strain to locate that sound, made her wonder what it was that produced it.

The low moan came again, finned into a word. A name! Her name! “Ann.” And then, “Oh, Ann. I’m so sick. So sick.”

“Bob!” The girl screamed into reverberating darkness. “Bob! Where are you? Oh, God! Where are you?”


VI

The Crawlers Close In


 

“Ann!” The voice was so weak, so terribly weak. “I thought—you would never—come back.” There was no longer delirium in Bob’s voice, but evidently he was unaware he was no longer beside the wreck in the desert.

Ann managed speech. “Where are you, Bob? It’s so dark I can’t see you.” Then he didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t know that anything was happening. “Keep on calling.”

Pangs of excruciating agony rewarded the girl’s effort to turn, to get going toward him.

“Ann. Here I am.” It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that Bob was alive, that Bob was restored to her. “I’m here, Ann.” She gritted her teeth, choked to silence a scream of anguish, twisted over on hands and knees. “Come to me, Ann.”

“I’m coming, dear. I’m coming as fast as I can.” There was nothing in her tone to betray the network of fiery pain that meshed her body. “But it’s so dark I can’t see you. Keep calling, Bob…”

There was torture in Bob’s accents, torment to match her own. “I’ve been calling for hours, Ann. Hours.” Sharp stones across which she crept cut her knees. Her hands were sticky with the blood oozing from their gashed palms. “Why is it so dark, darling? Where are the stars?”

Ann’s arm reached out for another torturous advance, rasped against vertical stone. An iron band constricted about her temples, and a sudden fear tightened her scalp. Her other hand found the rock-face. She squatted, felt wildly to left and right, groped above her head. Apprehension firmed to certainty. This was a wall, a wall of stone right across her path. But Bob’s voice came from right ahead, from beyond that wall!

“Are you coming, Ann?” It sounded clearly, apparently unmuffled by anything intervening!

“Just a minute, dear. I’m resting.” Bob was hurt, weakened by the awful fever that had swamped his mind in delirium. On no account must he be frightened. “I must rest, I’m awfully tired.” It took indomitable courage, steel-nerved grit to keep out of her call the despair that knotted her stomach, the panic that twisted her breast.

Ann found projections in the rock-face before her, gripped them and dragged herself erect while all her maltreated body screamed protest. Leaning against the stone, she groped above her head, high as she could reach. The barrier was still there, the barrier from beyond which Bob’s voice still sounded with uncanny clearness. “Ann!”

From the unholy dark that clamped almost tangible oppression around her, madness once more gibbered its mopping threat at the tormented girl. This wasn’t real! It couldn’t be real! Her ears told her that Bob was right here, right in front of her, so near that she had only to reach out a hand to touch him—but that reaching hand found only cold, damp, immovable stone.

But what was this? Her fingers, clawing sidewise, touched something cylindrical, greasy. A candle! Great God! A candle stuck in a niche. And a match next to it. A single match! Light!

Ann clutched the candle, the match. She was shaking, trembling as with an ague. By striking this match, by touching its flame to the wick of this candle, she would be able to see again. To see what it was that barred her way to Bob! But there was only one match. One only. And her hands were ripped, bleeding, numb with cold and weakness…

The universe itself stood by with bated breath as Ann licked a finger and held it up to discover if any draft wandered here to blow out the precious flame in the moment of its birth, as she felt with a quivering hand for a dry spot on the rock before her, as she placed the head of the match against one that she found and rubbed it slowly across the rough surface.

Phosphorous spluttered, flared. The girl’s whole soul was in her eyes as she watched that tiny flare, as she watched the blue spark ignite the splinter of wood. Her heart missed a beat as the glow flickered, pounded wildly when it grew stronger again and became a robust flame she dared move the all-important inch to the charred fiber of the wick. And no detonation that meant the collapse of a city’s wall ever fired a besieger’s heart with greater exultation than the ignition of that candle-end did hers.

Light guttered, steadied, drove back darkness. It revealed a chamber hollowed out of rock by human hands, human tools. It showed, some ten feet high in the farther wall, the aperture through which she had tumbled into this artificial cavern. Below this, and to one side, the growing illumination fell across a great mound of burlap bags, some of which had burst to spill forth jagged fragments of ore. The burlap of which the bags were fashioned was new and fresh! How could that be when the mine had not been worked for decades?

“Ann! I can see your light.” Bob’s cry struck across the wild surmise springing to the girl’s consciousness. “Ann!”

She turned. There was the rocky wall touch had told her about, unbroken. And always, as though he were right here in front of her, she could hear Bob. “Ann! You’re almost here. What are you waiting for?”

It was nightmarish, fantastic. “Ann!” Then she saw where the voice was coming from. Above her, with above her, there was another break in the surface of the rock, an arched opening like the one through which she had so fortuitously entered, except that it was barely two feet high and not much more across. It gaped blackly at her, and the stone that edged it was slightly blacker for inches than the rest of the wall, and from it Bob’s whimper came as though out of an old-fashioned speaking tube. “Please come to me, dear. Please hurry.”

A speaking tube. That’s what it was! A tube, the orifice of a small tunnel boring into rock! And somewhere within it, not far away, Bob lay, weak and sick, and in need of her! The thought sloughed exhaustion and pain from Ann like a discarded garment. She got a foot on an out-jutting knob of rock, lifted, slid her candle into the hole she could just reach, got her fingers onto its edge and was scrambling, was lifting herself up that sheer rock-face. She had one knee up, another, was squirming into the narrow tunnel.

“Coming, Bob,” she said. “I’m coming now.” She had to snake through here on her stomach, for the roof of the passage was not high enough even for her to lift to hands and knees. But Bob was somewhere in there, and even had the tunnel been narrower still she would somehow have squeezed through.

The flickering luminance of the candle Ann pushed ahead of her showed damp-blackened stone, slimy, scummed over by the blanched small fungi of the regions where the sun never reaches. Stalactites ripped long gashes in her clothing, tore her skin. Ahead there was the scutter of the eyeless creatures of the dark. But here and there Ann saw the mark of a pickaxe, a tooled groove, and knew she was not the first human to crawl through this tight gallery, knew that it was man formed, man-driven through the bowels of the earth, knew that it was the old mine through which she crept. But…

The ground slanted upward, beneath her, the tunnel opened out. “Ann!” Bob’s face was suddenly before her, pallid, bloodless, Bob’s body recumbent on the same auto cushions that so long ago—years, it seemed—she had dragged from the crumpled remains of their car.

“Bob! My dear! My dearest!” she had her arms around him, was kissing him. “My sweet.”

His hand came up, feebly, stroked her face. “Ann! I’ve been dreaming—the most horrible…Good Lord!…Where is this? What place is this. I thought…”

“Don’t think, Bob. Don’t think. Things have happened, all kinds of things. But everything’s all right now. I have you back and everything must be all right.”

“But, Ann—Holy Jumping Jehoshaphat—what’s that?”

Ann twisted in the direction of his startled gaze, saw across the low, irregularly circular chamber where they were the orifices of a number of such tunnels as that through which she had come, saw a clawed, skeleton hand writhe from one of them, an emaciated arm. And it was followed by a face!

The face looked at her, broke into a loathsome grin. That is, the livid gash that was its mouth widened to expose rotted, black teeth in a grimace that might have been intended for a grin. But there was no humor in the concave, grey countenance above it, no humor in the blank, imbecile eyes. There was only menace, lewd menace that brought back all the horror of that dreadful night and multiplied it a thousand-fold.

Breath hissed from Bob’s lips, close against her face, and Ann felt his body stiffen to the rigidity of terror. That same terror ran molten through her own frame…

The Thing moved gruesomely, and a sound came from it, a chattering, mindless howl, hollow and horrible. It echoed—No! It was being repeated from the other openings into this low, flat chamber, and from them came the rustling dry rasp of fabric dragged along stone. Skeleton fingers clutched the edge of a second hole…

Realization burst like black flame in Ann’s skull. They were closing in! The loathsome crawlers were closing in on her and on Bob! On Bob!

Breath gusted from her throat in a shriek the more poignant because it was soundless. Ann threw herself over the prostrate form of her husband to blanket him, to shield him from the obscene menace closing inexorably in. Her hand struck the candle, struck the light from it. Blackness swept down, blanking out the monstrous faces peering in, blanking out the grotesque half-human masks and the reptilian, snaking arms that writhed out of the rock in a constricting circle of doom. But it did not quench the slithering noises of the crawlers’ coming, their voiceless husked cries, the pungent, fetid odor of their foul bodies.

Bob’s cheek against hers was icy cold. Ann hitched to cover him more completely, to cover him with her own quivering flesh from the Things that came slowly nearer, nearer…Perhaps they would be satisfied with her. Perhaps possession of her would sate them. Perhaps she yet might save him from them.

It was feeling, not thought, that curdled in her brain with this last thread of hope, and reason gibbered to her how futile it was. They would take her, and they would take him, and there was utterly no hope for either.

Something touched her outstretched, bare arm, slithered gruesomely down its length. Ann’s skin crawled to the bloodless, lusting touch. A fleshless hand fastened about her ankle…

Rock grated, thunderously. The darkness paled suddenly to the color-drained, spectral luminance of moonlight. For one reason-devastating moment Ann was aware of a grotesque, leprous mask thrust close against her face, of lecherous eyes in which hell-fire glowed. Then an enormous, bat-like shadow fell across the twisted, prone form behind it, fell across her. Shrill, horrible sound burst like a tornado in the confined space—the piercing, weird ululation that had answered her cry for help and banished the crawlers when first she had glimpsed them. It crescendoed to its blasphemous apex of soul-shattering threat, held that topmost note till Ann knew that in another instant it would blast reason from her brain and leave her forever mad…

Abruptly it ended. The nerve-racked girl was aware that the crawlers had pulled away, that they were writhing on ground-scraping bellies to their holes, that they were sliding into them like so many rats. Above her, someone chuckled.

Ann rolled, thanksgiving bursting in her heart, trembling on her lips, rolled over to see who it was that twice had saved her from the fearful threat of the crawlers. Who was this unknown, unseen friend that alone in the weltering horror of Deadhope had aided her?

Gaunt, black and gigantic in the silting moon glow, Haldon Kane loomed above her. In his Luciferian countenance huge teeth showed, grinning with demoniac triumph, and about that head of Satan his black whip whistled and writhed!

“You,” Ann sobbed. “You!”

The whip-lash writhed down, flicked her chin, lifted again. The dexterous play of Kane’s thin wrist kept it in hissing, ominous motion. “Of course,” he snarled. “You didn’t think you could get away from me, in this place whose every nook and cranny I know? After ten years one should be more familiar with even a maze like this than another who had known it for—ten minutes.”

“Ten years! But you haven’t been here that long! Bob hired you only last week.” Clutching at straws, Ann was trying to keep him in play, was desperately trying to stave off the final moment.

A mocking hideous laugh mingled with the whir of the whip. “Travers didn’t hire me. I was here long ago, ever since it was deserted by fools who thought they must pay for labor to work it, who thought they must dig five times as much dirt as the thin vein occupied so that that labor might have place to stand at its work…Who do you think I am?”

“You said—Haldon Kane, the—”

The circling whip-lash rippled in time to the chuckle that dripped from its wielder’s mouth. “Kane is miles away from here, still running from the one sight I allowed him and his men of my pets. How do you like them?”

Ann shuddered, could not keep her eyes from the menace of the black thong snaking above her. “They—they’re horrible…” she whimpered. “They—”

“They’re not pretty, but useful. I don’t have to pay them, you know, and their food costs little. They find it themselves…”

“They find food—in this desert? How…” A gruesome speculation formed in Ann’s mind, added a new horror to that which encompassed her, was answered by the grinning fiend.

“There were more of them when I brought them here. Many more. And it was not disease that killed them. Do you understand?” Hell itself quivered in his sardonic smile. “Queer,” he mused. “How simply this State can be persuaded to farm out its convicts to anyone who will engage to board and clothe them. It saves the taxpayers money, you see, especially if the contractor engages also to guard them himself. And then—even guards are not necessary when a simple inoculation will make the prisoners amenable, very amenable to orders from one who has a brain…”

His voice trailed away, leaving behind it a slimy smear of horror, then came again. “But they’re hungry. My pets are hungry now.” Again that slow, Satanic smile and the whip’s hissing. “Shall I let them feed?” His slitted eyes flickered to Bob’s pallid figure, came back to her and seemed to strip the clothes from her in one lewd glance. “In the presence of such juicy morsels I have already had quite a little difficulty restraining them.”

Nausea retched bitterness into Ann’s throat at the ultimate horror he implied. “No. Oh God, no!” she whimpered. “Kill us but don’t let—” Terror choked her.

“Perhaps I may. Perhaps I may even let you—and Travers—live…Your husband’s formulae—what did you do with them?”

The man was no longer smiling, but his whip seemed to chuckle as somehow he managed to evoke a rattling sound from the snapper at its end. The choice he offered was clear.

Ann’s lips twitched. Gelid fingers clutched her throat. She contrived to squeeze out speech. “I’ll show you. Promise to let us go and I’ll show you.”

“Get up, and take me to where you have hidden them.” The whip stopped its eternal whir, floated down to his side, hung there, tense and ready. “Then, if you will sign this mine over to me I will—let you live.”

“And Bob?”

“And your husband. I swear it.”

Ann had to drag herself up by his leg, had to hold onto his arm, while the nausea of repugnance retched her, or she could not have remained standing. Her head came above the roof of the chamber, and she saw that the desert stretched, away from it, shimmering in the moonlight. Something like a trapdoor fashioned of rock lay to one side. When that was in place there would be no sign of what lay below.

“Come,” the man who was not Kane said. “I don’t know how long my pets can restrain themselves.”

The skeleton town was to one side, silhouetted against a moon across whose face luminous clouds drifted. “Over there,” Ann husked.

Ann stumbled over to the spot, with the man close behind her. Here were the beams in the form of an inverted cross, below them the other beneath which she had slid the envelope. Ann managed to stoop over, to slide her hand into the recess…

A cold chill took her. There was nothing there! Oh God! The envelope was not there, the envelope that was to ransom Bob from horror!

“Well?”

She turned haunted, lifeless eyes to her tormenter. Her lips moved soundlessly.

He needed no words to understand. Livid fury leaped into his eyes. His lash surged up. Ann shrank against the stripped framework of timber, horror staring from her twisted face.

“You’ve tricked me!” the man screamed. “You’ve dared to trick me!” The black thong spat at her, spat across her face. “I’ll flay you alive.”

Agony seared through to Ann’s brain. Her body was a shell of ice enclosing agony, seething with terror. The whip hissed up, stopped.

“No. That’s too good for you,” the man squealed. “They shall have you!” His chest swelled, and an ululation burst from between his colorless, writhing lips—a sound somehow like the warning cry she had heard twice before, but somehow different, somehow more horrible.

They were coming! Past the quivering, passion-shaken figure of the fiend she could see them squirming up out of the hole where Bob still was. Verminous grey shadows in the silver of the moon-bathed desert, spectral shadows of uttermost horror from a living grave, they were crawling loathsomely toward her.

“Take her!” their master shrieked. His long left hand jerked a pointing finger across his quivering body, his whip curled above his head, lashing air, hissing a song of doom. “Take her! Her flesh is sweet, her blood is warm.”

They slithered along the sand, coming fast now, faster than ever before they had moved. Ann could see their drooling mouths now, their devastated faces, their mindless eyes in which glowed the fires of damnation. “Take her!” the maddened voice shrilled again, and grey talons writhed out, grey hands gripped the hem of her dress.

She held on to the splintered timbers behind her, she kicked out at them with her small feet. But they were dragging her down. They were dragging her down to their seething, foul mouths.

And most horrible of all was the silence with which they attacked her, and the spectral glow of the moon on their contorted forms, more horrible even than the crackling of the man’s whip, and the shrillness of his mad voice as he screamed, “Take her!”

The grip of Ann’s hands on the beams behind her was torn away. She was on her knees. Twisting, she grabbed again at the shattered timbers, still frantically fighting, still desperately struggling against the inevitable horror that tore at her. A fanged tooth sank into her thigh, ripped. She jerked convulsively.

Above her there was a grinding crash! Light was blotted out. Cataclysmic sound burst all about her. Behind her there was a thunderous crash, a high-pitched scream of agony. Dust was in her nostrils, her eyes. It choked and blinded her. Coughing, spluttering, she flailed out frenzied arms, struck wood close on either side, wood above her.

Her knees, her legs were queerly wet. But hands no longer plucked at her, teeth no longer ripped her flesh. And there was no longer a shrill voice in her ears, keening “Take her.”

The dust settled. Upheld by shattered timbers, Ann moaned. Her brain cleared. Silvery light splotched shadow around her, and slowly she became aware that she was penned in a pyramidal space of shattered, jagged timbers, that beneath her the ground was soaked, muddy with blood, that behind her there were small whimperings, tiny noises of infinite suffering. The whimperings faded at last to silence. Her bewildered mind struggled with these things, and realization finally dawned on her. That last, hopeless grab of hers, that last frenzied clutch, somehow had seized upon the key beam of a precariously balanced heap of timbers. It had collapsed, and missing her, by some miracle had fallen upon and crushed the crawlers behind her, and their master…

A miracle? Perhaps. And then again…”Oh God!” Ann sobbed. “Oh God, I thank Thee.” Perhaps she was right. Perhaps He in whose sight no sparrow’s tail is unnoted…

The sun may have warmed them to courage again, the men whom the crawlers had routed from Deadhope and sent careening away in marrow-melting fear. At any rate, it was they, bristling with automatics and borrowed rifles, who returned, when that desert sun was already blazing high in the sky, to dig Ann out from under the blood-spattered beams, and fetch her again delirious husband from the strange pit where he lay. They carried them to the room prepared for them in the bunkhouse and aided them with rude surgery till a doctor and nurse could be summoned from Axton to take over the job.

But it was not till a week later that Ann came sufficiently out from the shadows to talk to Bob. “It’s all like a horrible nightmare,” she said. “I still don’t understand what it was all about.”

“We’ve pieced it together from what we’ve been able to find here, and the things he said to you, and what little was known about him.” Travers’ mouth was still lined with pain, his eyes somber. “The man’s real name was Grandon Rolfe. He knew your Uncle Horvay in the old days, knew that his silver vein had petered out till it was unprofitable to work the mine.

“After Deadhope was abandoned he moved in. He got convicts from the prison camp at Pimento, got them out here and made imbeciles of them with an injection extracted from locoweed that grows wild all through this desert. Then he worked the mine with them, starving them and whipping them into submission. With free labor, with no cost for equipment, it still could be made to pay…”

“But why did they crawl like that?”

“Because to further save expense and time, he excavated only the narrow vein of silver ore and made them work on their bellies, like snakes crawling in their burrows, till they no longer were able to walk erect.”

“Oh, horrible—”

“Not more horrible than some coal mines of which I know, in this country and abroad, where the miners work stooped over all day long, and tiny children are used for any task that requires quickness of movement. Greed inspires horrible things, my dear, and it is only in degree that Rolfe was worse than a great many highly-respected industrialists.

“However, he knew the jig was up when our men came in. He stopped operations, covered over all signs of them, and pretending to be a friendly neighbor, wormed out of them the reason for their activity, my discovery of the new process. He made up his mind to get hold of that and—”

“And his twisted brain conceived the idea of using his crawling idiots to scare them away, and then to frighten the process out of us.”

“Yes. It was only your bravery that defeated him, my dear.”

“Not bravery, Bob. I was scared to death. But all your work, all your hopes would have been ruined.” Then a new thought leaped to her brain, stinging it with anxiety. “Bob! The envelope. The papers with your formulae. They’re gone!”

“No, dear. They had only slipped into a little hole farther back than you could reach. I have them.” His hand reached across the space between their beds, found hers. An electric circuit seemed to close. Its current tingled between them, made them one. “I don’t deserve you, Ann.”

“Silly,” Ann said dreamily. “Someday I shall go through worse things than that for you…”

Bob’s eyes shone. “You mean…?”

“I think so—Oh Bob, I love you so much!”

-END-

 

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