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Title: The Horror From The Mound
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
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The Horror from the Mound
Robert E. Howard




STEVE BRILL did not believe in ghosts or demons. Juan Lopez did. But
neither the caution of the one nor the sturdy skepticism of the other
was shield against the horror that fell upon them--the horror
forgotten by men for more than three hundred years--a screaming fear
monstrously resurrected from the black lost ages.

Yet as Steve Brill sat on his sagging stoop that last evening, his
thoughts were as far from uncanny menaces as the thoughts of man can
be. His ruminations were bitter but materialistic. He surveyed his
farmland and he swore. Brill was tall, rangy and tough as boot-
leather--true son of the iron-bodied pioneers who wrenched West Texas
from the wilderness. He was browned by the sun and strong as a
long-horned steer. His lean legs and the boots on them showed his
cowboy instincts, and now he cursed himself that he had ever climbed
off the hurricane deck of his crank-eyed mustang and turned to farming.
He was no farmer, the young puncher admitted profanely.

Yet his failure had not all been his fault. Plentiful rain in the
winter--so rare in West Texas--had given promise of good crops. But as
usual, things had happened. A late blizzard had destroyed all the
budding fruit. The grain which had looked so promising was ripped to
shreds and battered into the ground by terrific hailstorms just as it
was turning yellow. A period of intense dryness, followed by another
hailstorm, finished the corn.

Then the cotton, which had somehow struggled through, fell before a
swarm of grasshoppers which stripped Brill's field almost overnight.
So Brill sat and swore that he would not renew his lease--he gave
fervent thanks that he did not own the land on which he had wasted his
sweat, and that there were still broad rolling ranges to the West
where a strong young man could make his living riding and roping.

Now as Brill sat glumly, he was aware of the approaching form of his
nearest neighbor, Juan Lopez, a taciturn old Mexican who lived in a
hut just out of sight over the hill across the creek, and grubbed for
a living. At present he was clearing a strip of land on an adjoining
farm, and in returning to his hut he crossed a corner of Brill's
pasture.

Brill idly watched him climb through the barbed-wire fence and trudge
along the path he had worn in the short dry grass. He had been working
at his present job for over a month now, chopping down tough gnarly
mesquite trees and digging up their incredibly long roots, and Brill
knew that he always followed the same path home. And watching, Brill
noted him swerving far aside, seemingly to avoid a low rounded hillock
which jutted above the level of the pasture. Lopez went far around
this knoll and Brill remembered that the old Mexican always circled it
at a distance. And another thing came into Brill's idle mind--Lopez
always increased his gait when he was passing the knoll, and he always
managed to get by it before sundown--yet Mexican laborers generally
worked from the first light of dawn to the last glint of twilight,
especially at these grubbing jobs, when they were paid by the acre and
not by the day. Brill's curiosity was aroused.

He rose, and sauntering down the slight slope on the crown of which
his shack sat, hailed the plodding Mexican.

"Hey, Lopez, wait a minute."

Lopez halted; looked about, and remained motionless but unenthusiastic
as the white man approached.

"Lopez," said Brill lazily, "it ain't none of my business, but I just
wanted to ask you--how come you always go so far around that old Indian
mound?"

"No habe," grunted Lopez shortly.

"You're a liar," responded Brill genially. "You savvy all right; you
speak English as good as me. What's the matter--you think that mound's
ha'nted or somethin'!"

Brill could speak Spanish himself and read it, too, but like most
Anglo-Saxons he much preferred to speak his own language.

Lopez shrugged his shoulders.

"It is not a good place, no bueno," he muttered, avoiding Brill's
eyes. "Let hidden things rest."

"I reckon you're scared of ghosts," Brill bantered. "Shucks, if that
is an Indian mound, them Indians been dead so long their ghosts 'ud be
plumb wore out by now."

Brill knew that the illiterate Mexicans looked with superstitious
aversion on the mounds that are found here and there through the
Southwest--relics of a past and forgotten age, containing the moldering
bones of chiefs and warriors of a lost race.

"Best not to disturb what is hidden in the earth," grunted Lopez.

"Bosh," said Brill. "Me and some boys busted into one of them mounds
over in the Palo Pinto country and dug up pieces of a skeleton with
some beads and flint arrowheads and the like. I kept some of the teeth
a long time till I lost 'em, and I ain't never been ha'nted."

"Indians?" snorted Lopez unexpectedly. "Who spoke of Indians? There
have been more than Indians in this country. In the old times strange
things happened here. I have heard the tales of my people, handed down
from generation to generation. And my people were here long before
yours, Senor Brill."

"Yeah, you're right," admitted Steve. "First white men in this country
was Spaniards, of course. Coronado passed along not very far from
here, I hear-tell, and Hernando de Estrada's expedition came through
here--away back yonder--I dunno how long ago."

"In 1545," said Lopez. "They pitched camp yonder where your corral
stands now."

Brill turned to glance at his rail-fenced corral, inhabited now by his
saddlehorse, a pair of workhorses and a scrawny cow.

"How come you know so much about it?" he asked curiously.

"One of my ancestors marched with de Estrada," answered Lopez. "A
soldier, Porfirio Lopez; he told his son of that expedition, and he
told his son, and so down the family line to me, who have no son to
whom I can tell the tale."

"I didn't know you were so well connected," said Brill. "Maybe you
know somethin' about the gold de Estrada was supposed to have hid
around here, somewhere."

"There was no gold," growled Lopez. "De Estrada's soldiers bore only
their arms, and they fought their way through hostile country--many
left their bones along the trail. Later--many years later--a mule train
from Santa Fe was attacked not many miles from here by Comanches and
they hid their gold and escaped; so the legends got mixed up. But even
their gold is not there now, because Gringo buffalo-hunters found it
and dug it up."

Brill nodded abstractedly, hardly heeding. Of all the continent of
North America there is no section so haunted by tales of lost or
hidden treasure as is the Southwest. Uncounted wealth passed back and
forth over the hills and plains of Texas and New Mexico in the old
days when Spain owned the gold and silver mines of the New World and
controlled the rich fur trade of the West, and echoes of that wealth
linger on in tales of golden caches. Some such vagrant dream, born of
failure and pressing poverty, rose in Brill's mind.

Aloud he spoke: "Well, anyway, I got nothin' else to do and I believe
I'll dig into that old mound and see what I can find."

The effect of that simple statement on Lopez was nothing short of
shocking. He recoiled and his swarthy brown face went ashy; his black
eyes flared and he threw up his arms in a gesture of intense
expostulation.

"Dios, no!" he cried. "Don't do that, Senor Brill! There is a curse--
my grandfather told me--"

"Told you what?" asked Brill.

Lopez lapsed into sullen silence.

"I cannot speak," he muttered. "I am sworn to silence. Only to an
eldest son could I open my heart. But believe me when I say better had
you cut your throat than to break into that accursed mound."

"Well," said Brill, impatient of Mexican superstitions, "if it's so
bad why don't you tell me about it? Gimme a logical reason for not
bustin' into it."

"I cannot speak!" cried the Mexican desperately. "I know!--but I swore
to silence on the Holy Crucifix, just as every man of my family has
sworn. It is a thing so dark, it is to risk damnation even to speak of
it! Were I to tell you, I would blast the soul from your body. But I
have sworn--and I have no son, so my lips are sealed forever."

"Aw, well," said Brill sarcastically, "why don't you write it out?"

Lopez started, stared, and to Steve's surprise, caught at the
suggestion.

"I will! Dios be thanked the good priest taught me to write when I was
a child. My oath said nothing of writing. I only swore not to speak. I
will write out the whole thing for you, if you will swear not to speak
of it afterward, and to destroy the paper as soon as you have read it.”

"Sure," said Brill, to humor him, and the old Mexican seemed much
relieved.

"Bueno! I will go at once and write. Tomorrow as I go to work I will
bring you the paper and you will understand why no one must open that
accursed mound!"

And Lopez hurried along his homeward path, his stooped shoulders
swaying with the effort of his unwonted haste. Steve grinned after
him, shrugged his shoulders and turned back toward his own shack. Then
he halted, gazing back at the low rounded mound with its grass-grown
sides. It must be an Indian tomb, he decided, what with its symmetry
and its similarity to other Indian mounds he had seen. He scowled as
he tried to figure out the seeming connection between the mysterious
knoll and the martial ancestor of Juan Lopez.

Brill gazed after the receding figure of the old Mexican. A shallow
valley, cut by a half-dry creek, bordered with trees and underbrush,
lay between Brill's pasture and the low sloping hill beyond which lay
Lopez's shack. Among the trees along the creek bank the old Mexican
was disappearing. And Brill came to a sudden decision.

Hurrying up the slight slope, he took a pick and a shovel from the
tool shed built onto the back of his shack. The sun had not yet set
and Brill believed he could open the mound deep enough to determine
its nature before dark. If not, he could work by lantern light. Steve,
like most of his breed, lived mostly by impulse, and his present urge
was to tear into that mysterious hillock and find what, if anything,
was concealed therein. The thought of treasure came again to his mind,
piqued by the evasive attitude of Lopez.

What if, after all, that grassy heap of brown earth hid riches--virgin
ore from forgotten mines, or the minted coinage of old Spain? Was it
not possible that the musketeers of de Estrada had themselves reared
that pile above a treasure they could not bear away, molding it in the
likeness of an Indian mound to fool seekers? Did old Lopez know that?
It would not be strange if, knowing of treasure there, the old Mexican
refrained from disturbing it. Ridden with grisly superstitious fears,
he might well live out a life of barren toil rather than risk the
wrath of lurking ghosts or devils--for the Mexicans say that hidden
gold is always accursed, and surely there was supposed to be some
especial doom resting on this mound. Well, Brill meditated, Latin-
Indian devils had no terrors for the Anglo-Saxon, tormented by the
demons of drouth and storm and crop failure.

Steve set to work with the savage energy characteristic of his breed.
The task was no light one; the soil, baked by the fierce sun, was
iron-hard, and mixed with rocks and pebbles. Brill sweated profusely
and grunted with his efforts, but the fire of the treasure-hunter was
on him. He shook the sweat out of his eyes and drove in the pick with
mighty strokes that ripped and crumbled the close-packed dirt.

The sun went down, and in the long dreamy summer twilight he worked
on, almost oblivious of time or space. He began to be convinced that
the mound was a genuine Indian tomb, as he found traces of charcoal in
the soil. The ancient people which reared these sepulchers had kept
fires burning upon them for days, at some point in the building. All
the mounds Steve had ever opened had contained a solid stratum of
charcoal a short distance below the surface: But the charcoal traces
he found now were scattered about through the soil.

His idea of a Spanish-built treasure trove faded, but he persisted.
Who knows? Perhaps that strange folk men now called Mound-Builders had
treasure of their own which they laid away with the dead.

Then Steve yelped in exultation as his pick rang on a bit of metal. He
snatched it up and held it close to his eyes, straining in the waning,
light. It was caked and corroded with rust, worn almost paper-thin,
but he knew it for what it was--a spur-rowel, unmistakably Spanish with
its long cruel points. And he halted, completely bewildered. No
Spaniard ever reared this mound, with its undeniable marks of
aboriginal workmanship. Yet how came that relic of Spanish caballeros
hidden deep in the packed soil?

Brill shook his head and set to work again. He knew that in the center
of the mound, if it were indeed an aboriginal tomb, he would find a
narrow chamber built of heavy stones, containing the bones of the
chief for whom the mound had been reared and the victims sacrificed
above it. And in the gathering darkness he felt his pick strike
heavily against something granite-like and unyielding. Examination, by
sense of feel as well as by sight, proved it to be a solid block of
stone, roughly hewn. Doubtless it formed one of the ends of the
death-chamber. Useless to try to shatter it. Brill chipped and pecked
about it, scraping the dirt and pebbles away from the corners until
he felt that wrenching it out would be but a matter of sinking the
pick-point underneath and levering it out.

But now he was suddenly aware that darkness had come on. In the young
moon objects were dim and shadowy. His mustang nickered in the corral
whence came the comfortable crunch of tired beasts' jaws on corn. A
whippoorwill called eerily from the dark shadows of the narrow winding
creek. Brill straightened reluctantly. Better get a lantern and
continue his explorations by its light.

He felt in his pocket with some idea of wrenching out the stone and
exploring the cavity by the aid of matches. Then he stiffened. Was it.
imagination that he heard a faint sinister rustling, which seemed to
come from behind the blocking stone? Snakes! Doubtless they had holes
somewhere about the base of the mound and there might be a dozen big
 diamond-backed rattlers coiled up in that cave-like interior waiting
for him to put his hand among them. He shivered slightly at the
thought and backed away out of the excavation he had made.

It wouldn't do to go poking about blindly into holes. And for the past
few minutes, he realized, he had been aware of a faint foul odor
exuding from interstices about the blocking stone--though he admitted
that the smell suggested reptiles no more than it did any other
menacing scent. It had a charnel-house reek about it--gases formed in
the chamber of death, no doubt, and dangerous to the living.

Steve laid down his pick and returned to the house, impatient of the
necessary delay. Entering the dark building, he struck a match and
located his kerosene lantern hanging on its nail on the wall. Shaking
it, he satisfied himself that it was nearly full of coal oil, and
lighted it. Then he fared forth again, for his eagerness would not
allow him to pause long enough for a bite of food. The mere opening of
the mound intrigued him, as it must always intrigue a man of
imagination, and the discovery of the Spanish spur had whetted his
curiosity.

He hurried from his shack, the swinging lantern casting long distorted
shadows ahead of him and behind. He chuckled as he visualized Lopez's
thoughts and actions when he learned, on the morrow, that the
forbidden mound had been pried into. A good thing he opened it that
evening, Brill reflected; Lopez might even have tried to prevent him
meddling with it, had he known.

In the dreamy hush of the summer night, Brill reached the mound, lifted
his lantern, swore bewilderedly. The lantern revealed his excavations,
his tools lying carelessly where he had dropped them--and a black
gaping aperture! The great blocking stone lay in the bottom of the
excavation he had made, as if thrust carelessly aside. Warily he
thrust the lantern forward and peered into the small cave-like
chamber, expecting to see he knew not what. Nothing met his eyes
except the bare rock sides of a long narrow cell, large enough to
receive a man's body, which had apparently been built up of roughly
hewn square-cut stones, cunningly and strongly joined together.

"Lopez!" exclaimed Steve furiously. "The dirty coyote! He's been
watchin' me work--and when I went after the lantern, he snuck up and
pried the rock out and grabbed whatever was in there, I reckon. Blast
his greasy hide, I'll fix him!"

Savagely he extinguished the lantern and glared across the shallow,
brush-grown valley. And as he looked he stiffened. Over the corner of
the hill, on the other side of which the shack of Lopez stood, a
shadow moved. The slender moon was setting, the light dim and the play
of the shadows baffling. But Steve's eyes were sharpened by the sun
and winds of the wastelands, and he knew that it was some two-legged
creature that was disappearing over the low shoulder of the mesquite-
grown hill.

"Beatin' it to his shack," snarled Brill. "He's shore got somethin' or
he wouldn't be travelin' at that speed."

Brill swallowed, wondering why a peculiar trembling had suddenly taken
hold of him. What was there unusual about a thieving old greaser
running home with his loot? Brill tried to drown the feeling that
there was something peculiar about the gait of the dim shadow, which
had seemed to move at a sort of slinking lope. There, must have been
need for swiftness when stocky old Juan Lopez elected to travel at
such a strange pace.

"Whatever he found is as much mine as his," swore Brill, trying to get
his mind off the abnormal aspect of the figure's flight, "I got this
land leased and I done all the work diggin'. A curse, heck! No wonder
he told me that stuff. Wanted me to leave it alone so he could get it
hisself. It's a wonder he ain't dug it up long before this. But you
can't never tell about them spics."

Brill, as he meditated thus, was striding down the gentle slope of the
pasture which led down to the creek bed. He passed into the shadows of
the trees and dense underbrush and walked across the dry creek bed,
noting absently that neither whippoorwill nor hoot-owl called in the
darkness. There was a waiting, listening tenseness in the night that
he did not like. The shadows in the creek bed seemed too thick, too
breathless. He wished he had not blown out the lantern, which he still
carried, and was glad he had brought the pick, gripped like a battle-
ax in his right hand. He had an impulse to whistle, just to break the
silence, then swore and dismissed the thought. Yet he was glad when he
clambered up the low opposite bank and emerged into the starlight.

He walked up the slope and onto the hill, and looked down on the
mesquite flat wherein stood Lopezs squalid hut. A light showed at the
one window.

"Packin' his things for a getaway, I reckon," grunted Steve. "Oh, what
the--"

He staggered as from a physical impact as a frightful scream knifed
the stillness. He wanted to clap his hands over his ears to shut out
the horror of that cry, which rose unbearably and then broke in an
abhorrent gurgle.

"Good God!" Steve felt the cold sweat spring out upon him. "Lopez--or
somebody--"

Even as he gasped the words, he was running down the hill as fast as
his long legs could carry him. Some unspeakable horror was taking
place in that lonely hut, but he was going to investigate if it meant
facing the Devil himself. He tightened his grip on his pick-handle as
he ran. Wandering prowlers, murdering old Lopez for the loot he had
taken from the mound, Steve thought, and forgot his wrath. It would go
hard for anyone he found molesting the old scoundrel, thief though he
might be.

He hit the flat, running hard. And then the light in the hut went out
and Steve staggered in full flight, bringing up against a mesquite tree
with an impact that jolted a grunt out of him and tore his hands on
the thorns. Rebounding with a sobbed curse, he rushed for the shack,
nerving himself for what he might see--his hair still standing on end
at what he had already seen.

Brill tried the one door of the hut and found it bolted. He shouted to
Lopez and received no answer. Yet utter silence did not reign. From
within came a curious muffled worrying sound that ceased as Brill
swung his pick crashing against the door. The flimsy portal splintered
and Brill leaped into the dark hut, eyes blazing, pick swung high for
a desperate onslaught. But no sound ruffled the grisly silence, and
in the darkness nothing stirred, though Brill's chaotic imagination
peopled the shadowed corners of the hut with shapes of horror.

With a hand damp with perspiration he found a match and struck it.
Besides himself only Lopez occupied the hut--old Lopez, stark dead on
the dirt floor, arms spread wide like a crucifix, mouth sagging open
in a semblance of idiocy, eyes wide and staring with a horror Brill
found intolerable. The one window gaped open, showing the method of
the slayer's exit--possibly his entrance as well. Brill went to that
window and gazed out warily. He saw only the sloping hillside on one
hand and the mesquite flat on the other. He stared--was that a hint of
movement among the stunted shadows of the mesquites and chaparral--or
had he but imagined he glimpsed a dim loping figure among the trees?

He turned back, as the match burned down to his fingers. He lit the
old coal-oil lamp on the rude table, cursing as he burned his hand.
The globe of the lamp was very hot, as if it had been burning for
hours.

Reluctantly he turned to the corpse on the floor. Whatever sort of
death had come to Lopez, it had been horrible, but Brill, gingerly
examining the dead man, found no wound--no mark of knife or bludgeon
on him. Wait. There was a thin smear of blood on Brill's questing
hand. Searching, he found the source--three or four tiny punctures in
Lopez’s throat, from which blood had oozed sluggishly. At first he
thought they had been inflicted with a stiletto--a thin round edgeless
dagger then he shook his head. He had seen stiletto wounds--he had the
scar of one on his own body. These wounds more resembled the bite of
some animal--they looked like the marks of pointed fangs.

Yet Brill did not believe they were deep enough to have caused death,
nor had much blood flowed from them. A belief, abhorrent with grisly
speculations, rose up in the dark corners of his mind--that Lopez had
died of fright and that the wounds had been inflicted either
simultaneously--with his death, or an instant afterward.

And Steve noticed something else; scrawled about on the floor lay a
number of dingy leaves of paper, scrawled in the old Mexican's crude
hand--he would write of the curse of the mound, he had said. There
were the sheets on which he had written, there was the stump of a
pencil on the floor, there was the hot lamp globe, all mute witnesses
that the old Mexican had been seated at the rough-hewn table writing
for hours. Then it was not he who opened the mound chamber and stole
the contents--but who was it, in God's name? And who or what was it
that Brill had glimpsed loping over the shoulder of the hill?

Well, there was but one thing to do--saddle his mustang and ride the
ten miles to Coyote Wells, the nearest town, and inform the sheriff of
the murder.

Brill gathered up the papers. The last was crumpled in the old man's
clutching hand and Brill secured it with some difficulty. Then as he
turned to extinguish the light, he hesitated, and cursed himself for
the crawling fear that lurked at the back of his mind--fear of the
shadowy thing he had seen cross the window just before the light was
extinguished in the hut. The long arm of the murderer, he thought,
reaching for the lamp to put it out, no doubt. What had there been
abnormal or inhuman about that vision, distorted though it must have
been in the dim lamplight and shadow? As a man strives to remember the
details of a nightmare dream, Steve tried to define in his mind some
clear reason that would explain why that flying glimpse had unnerved
him to the extent of blundering headlong into a tree, and why the mere
vague remembrance of it now caused cold sweat to break out on him.

Cursing himself to keep up his courage, he lighted his lantern, blew
out the lamp on the rough table, and resolutely set forth, grasping
his pick like a weapon. After all, why should certain seemingly
abnormal aspects about a sordid murder upset him? Such crimes were
abhorrent, but common enough, especially among Mexicans, who cherished
unguessed feuds.

Then as he stepped into the silent star-flecked night he brought up
short. From across the creek sounded the sudden soul-shaking scream of
a horse in deadly terror--then a mad drumming of hoofs that receded in
the distance. And Brill swore in rage and dismay. Was it a panther lurking
in the hills--had a monster cat slain old Lopez? Then why was not the
victim marked with the scars of fierce hooked talons? And who
extinguished the light in the hut?

As he wondered, Brill was running swiftly toward the dark creek. Not
lightly does a cowpuncher regard the stampeding of his stock. As he
passed into the darkness of the brush along the dry creek, Brill found
his tongue strangely dry. He kept swallowing, and he held the lantern
high. It made but faint impression in the gloom, but seemed to
accentuate the blackness of the crowding shadows. For some strange
reason, the thought entered Brill's chaotic mind that though the land
was new to the Anglo-Saxon, it was in reality very old. That broken
and desecrated tomb was mute evidence that the land was ancient to
man, and suddenly the night and the hills and the shadows bore on
Brill with a sense of hideous antiquity. Here had long generations of
men lived and died before Brill's ancestors ever heard of the land. In
the night, in the shadows of this very creek, men had no doubt given
up their ghosts in grisly ways. With these reflections Brill hurried
through the shadows of the thick trees.

He breathed deeply in relief when he emerged from the trees on his own
side. Hurrying up the gentle slope to the railed corral, he held up
his lantern, investigating. The corral was empty; not even the placid
cow was in sight. And the bars were down. That pointed to human
agency, and the affair took on a newly sinister aspect. Someone did
not intend that Brill should ride to Coyote Wells that night. It meant
that the murderer intended making his getaway and wanted a good start
on the law, or else--Brill grinned wryly. Far away across a mesquite
flat he believed he could still catch the faint and faraway noise of
running horses. What in God's name had given them such a fright? A
cold finger of fear played shudderingly on Brill's spine.

Steve headed for the house. He did not enter boldly. He crept clear
around the shack, peering shudderingly into the dark windows,
listening with painful intensity for some sound to betray the presence
of the lurking killer. At last he ventured to open the door and step
in. He threw the door back against the wall to find if anyone were
hiding behind it, lifted the lantern high and stepped in, heart
pounding, pick gripped fiercely, his feelings a mixture of fear and
red rage. But no hidden assassin leaped upon him, and a wary
exploration of the shack revealed nothing.

With a sigh of relief Brill locked the doors, made fast the windows
and lighted his old coal-oil lamp. The thought of old Lopez lying, a
glassy-eyed corpse alone in the hut across the creek, made him wince
and shiver, but he did not intend to start for town on foot in the
night.

He drew from its hiding-place his reliable old Colt .45, spun the
blue-steel cylinder, and grinned mirthlessly. Maybe the killer did not
intend to leave any witnesses to his crime alive. Well, let him come!
He--or they--would find a young cowpuncher with a six-shooter less easy
prey than an old unarmed Mexican. And that reminded Brill of the
 papers he had brought from the hut. Taking care that he was not in
line with a window through which a sudden bullet might come, he
settled himself to read, with one ear alert for stealthy sounds.

And as he read the crude laborious script, a slow cold horror grew in
his soul. It was a tale of fear that the old Mexican had scrawled--a
tale handed down from generation to generation--a tale of ancient times.

And Brill read of the wanderings of the caballero Hernando de Estrada
and his armored pikemen, who dared the deserts of the Southwest when
all was strange and unknown. There were some forty-odd soldiers,
servants, and masters, at the beginning, the manuscript ran. There
was the captain, de Estrada, and the priest, and young Juan Zavilla,
and Don Santiago de Valdez--a mysterious nobleman who had been taken
off a helplessly floating ship in the Caribbean Sea--all the others of
the crew and passengers had died of plague, he had said and he had
cast their bodies overboard. So de Estrada had taken him aboard the
ship that was bearing the expedition from Spain, and de Valdez joined
them in their explorations.

Brill read something of their wanderings, told in the crude style of
old Lopez, as the old Mexican's ancestors had handed down the tale for
over three hundred years. The bare written words dimly reflected the
terrific hardships the explorers had encountered--drouth, thirst,
floods, the desert sandstorms, the spears of hostile redskins. But it
was of another peril that old Lopez told--a grisly lurking horror that
fell upon the lonely caravan wandering through the immensity of the
wild. Man by man they fell and no man knew the slayer. Fear and black
suspicion ate at the heart of the expedition like a canker, and their
leader knew not where to turn. This they all knew: Among them was a
fiend in human form.

Men began to draw apart from each other, to scatter along the line of
march, and this mutual suspicion, that sought security in solitude,
made it easier for the fiend. The skeleton of the expedition staggered
through the wilderness, lost, dazed and helpless, and still the unseen
horror hung on their flanks, dragging down the stragglers, preying on
drowsing sentries and sleeping men. And on the throat of each was
found the wounds of pointed fangs that bled the victim white; so that
the living knew with what manner of evil they had to deal. Men reeled
through the wild, calling on the saints, or blaspheming in their
terror, fighting frenziedly against sleep, until they fell with
exhaustion and sleep stole on them with horror and death.

Suspicion centered on a great black man, a cannibal slave from
Calabar. And they put him in chains. But young Juan Zavilla went the
way of the rest, and then the priest was taken. But the priest fought
off his fiendish assailant and lived long enough to gasp the demon's
name to de Estrada. And Brill, shuddering and wide-eyed, read:

". . . And now it was evident to de Estrada that the good priest had
spoken the truth, and the slayer was Don Santiago de Valdez, who was a
vampire, an undead fiend, subsisting on the blood of the living. And
de Estrada called to mind a certain foul nobleman who had lurked in
the mountains of Castile since the days of the Moors, feeding off the
blood of helpless victims which lent him a ghastly immortality. This
nobleman had been driven forth; none knew where he had fled but it was
evident that he and Don Santiago were the same man: He had fled Spain
by ship, and de Estrada knew that the people of that ship had died,
not by plague as the fiend had represented, but by the fangs of the
vampire.

"De Estrada and the black man and the few soldiers who still lived
went searching for him and found him stretched in bestial sleep in a
clump of chaparral; full-gorged he was with human blood from his last
victim. Now it is well known that a vampire, like a great serpent,
when well gorged, falls into a deep sleep and may be taken without
peril. But de Estrada was at a loss as to how to dispose of the
monster, for how may the dead be slain? For a vampire is a man who has
died long ago, yet is quick with a certain foul unlife.

"The men urged that the Caballero drive a stake through the fiend's
heart and cut off his head, uttering the holy words that would crumble
the long-dead body into dust, but the priest was dead and de Estrada
feared that in the act the monster might waken.

"So--they took Don Santiago, lifting him softly, and bore him to an
old Indian mound near by. This they opened, taking forth the bones
they found there, and they placed the vampire within and sealed up the
mound. Him grant until Judgment Day.

"It is a place accursed, and I wish I had starved elsewhere before I
came into this part of the country seeking work--for I have known of
the land and the creek and the mound with its terrible secret, ever
since childhood; so you see, Senor Brill, why you must not open the
mound and wake the fiend--"

There the manuscript ended with an erratic scratch of the pencil that
tore the crumpled leaf.

Brill rose, his heart pounding wildly, his face bloodless, his tongue
cleaving to his palate. He gagged and found words.

"That's why the spur was in the mound--one of them Spaniards dropped it
while they was diggin'--and I mighta knowed it's been dug into before,
the way the charcoal was scattered out--but, good God--"

Aghast he shrank from the black visions--an undead monster stirring in
the gloom of his tomb, thrusting from within to push aside the stone
loosened by the pick of ignorance--a shadowy shape loping over the hill
toward a light that betokened a human prey--a frightful long arm that
crossed a dim-lighted window . . . .

"It's madness!" he gasped. "Lopez was plumb loco! They ain't no such
things as vampires! If they is, why didn't he get me first, instead of
Lopez--unless he was scoutin' around, makin' sure of everything before
he pounced? Aw, hell! It's all a pipe-dream--"

The words froze in his throat. At the window a face glared and
gibbered soundlessly at him. Two icy eyes pierced his very soul. A
shriek burst from his throat and that ghastly visage vanished. But the
very air was permeated by the foul scent that had hung about the
ancient mound. And now the door creaked--bent slowly inward. Brill
backed up against the wall, his gun shaking in his hand. It did not
occur to him to fire through the door; in his chaotic brain he had but
one thought that only that thin portal of wood separated him from some
horror born out of the womb of night and gloom and the black past. His
eyes were distended as he saw the door give, as he heard the staples
of the bolt groan.

The door burst inward. Brill did not scream. His tongue was frozen to
the roof of his mouth. His fear-glazed eyes took in the tall, vulture-
like form--the icy eyes, the long black fingernails--the moldering
garb, hideously ancient--the long spurred boot--the slouch hat with
its crumbling feather--the flowing cloak that was falling to slow
shreds. Framed in the black doorway crouched that abhorrent shape out
of the past, and Brill's brain reeled. A savage cold radiated from the
figure--the scent of moldering clay and charnel-house refuse. And then
the undead came at the living like a swooping vulture.

Brill fired point-blank and saw a shred of rotten cloth fly from the
Thing's breast. The vampire reeled beneath the impact of the heavy
ball, then righted himself and came on with frightful speed. Brill
reeled back against the wall with a choking cry, the gun falling from
his nerveless hand. The black legends were true then--human weapons
were powerless--for may a man kill one already dead for long centuries,
as mortals die?

Then the claw-like hands at his throat roused the young cowpuncher to a
frenzy of madness. As his pioneer ancestors fought hand to hand
against brain-shattering odds, Steve Brill fought the cold dead
crawling thing that sought his life and his soul.

Of that ghastly battle Brill never remembered much. It was a blind
chaos in which he screamed beast-like, tore and slugged and hammered,
where long black nails like the talons of a panther tore at him, and
pointed teeth snapped again and again at his throat. Rolling and
tumbling about the room, both half enveloped by the musty folds of
that ancient rotting cloak, they smote and tore at each other among
the ruins of the shattered furniture, and the fury of the vampire was
not more terrible than the fear-crazed desperation of his victim.

They crashed headlong, into the table, knocking it down upon its side,
and the coal-oil lamp splintered on the floor, spraying the walls with
sudden flames. Brill felt the bite of the burning oil that spattered
him, but in the red frenzy of the fight he gave no heed. The black
talons were tearing at him, the inhuman eyes burning icily into his
soul; between his frantic fingers the withered flesh of the monster
was hard as dry wood. And wave after wave of blind madness swept over
Steve Brill. Like a man battling a nightmare, he screamed and smote,
while all about them the fire leaped up and caught at the walls and
roof.

Through darting jets and licking tongues of flames they reeled and
rolled like a demon and a mortal warring on the fire-lanced floors of
hell. And in the growing tumult of the flames, Brill gathered himself
for one last volcanic burst of frenzied strength. Breaking away and
staggering up, gasping and bloody, he lunged blindly at the foul
shape and caught it in a grip not even the vampire could break. And
whirling his fiendish assailant bodily on high, he dashed him down
across the uptilted edge of the fallen table as a man might break a
stick of wood across his knee. Something cracked like a snapping
branch and the vampire fell from Brill's grasp to writhe in a strange
broken posture on the burning floor. Yet it was not dead, for its
flaming eyes still burned on Brill with a ghastly hunger, and it
strove to crawl toward him with its broken spine, as a dying snake
crawls.

Brill, reeling and gasping, shook the blood from his eyes, and
staggered blindly through the broken door. And as a man runs from the
portals of hell, he ran stumblingly through the mesquite and
chaparral until he fell from utter exhaustion. Looking back he saw the
flames of the burning house and thanked God that it would burn until
the very bones of Don Santiago de Valdez were utterly consumed and
destroyed from the knowledge of men.



THE END




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