Was this then the horrible price Tim Croft must pay for his disbelief in devil-magic philtres?— forfeiture of his own lovely fiancee's life-blood to the undead corpse of Haunted Hollow!
OVER the wind's midnight howling and the demoniac swirl of the mountain rainstorm came the frantic cry of a man harassed by some hideous mental torment. “Doc Croft! For God's sake open up afore hit's too late!”
Tim Croft, recently assigned by the state health authorities to take charge of this tiny charity hospital in the deep Ozarks, came abruptly awake as he heard the agonized call punctuated by an insistent hammering on the front door of his cabin, which was located to one side of the hospital proper. He slid his feet into worn slippers, made a light, crossed the cabin's single room and opened the rough, hard-hewn door.
A spindrift of rain flurried at him, and with it came the man who had called out so despairingly. He was Jeb Starko from up in Haunted Hollow, a mile beyond the ridge—an area bedeviled, according to local superstition, by ghosts and similar evil creatures of the night. Soaked to the skin, his unshaven face pasty with fear, Starko stumbled over the threshold. “You got to stop 'em, doc!” he mouthed. “They're a-comin' to git my Eula!”
“Coming to get your wife? But she's—” Tim Croft choked back the gloomy news he had for the mountaineer. “Who's coming, and why?” he demanded.
“The Ludwells from down in the flats, damn 'em! They're a-sayin' as how Eula is a witch-vampire like the hants that roam the ridge, an' they're aimin' to kill her. They'll do for you an' your nurses, too, if you ain't careful!”
Croft's nostrils pinched in as he drew a deep breath. The Ludwells were members of a clan which, from the very outset, had fiercely resented his coming to the region as only the deeply superstitious can resent progress. More than once they had muttered dark threats against him because of his efforts to educate the natives away from their old beliefs in herbs and charms and devil-magic philtres. If it were really true that they were now on their way to the hospital, then trouble was definitely brewing.
THERE was an old revolver in the top drawer of Tim Croft's desk. He got it and thrust it into the pocket of his bathrobe. Then he pivoted as he heard scurrying footfalls behind him. His day nurse, Brenda Lemoyne, came pelting into the room, clad in a slicker over her nightgown. Daintily blonde and alluringly pretty, she panted: “Tim, darling, what's wrong? I heard a commotion—”
His arm went possessively about her slender waist. Some day Brenda would be his wife, when he had achieved a promotion to some more important post; and because his love for her was so great, he frowned uneasily at her presence in his quarters now. “You should have stayed in your cabin with Edith Paxon,” he said gravely, referring to the nurse who shared duty with Brenda.
“But—but Edith isn't there. I looked for her before I came over here, but I couldn't find her. Tim—tell me what the trouble is!”
“The Ludwells are on their way here.” “The Ludwells? Oh, Tim, I—I'm frightened!” “I'll handle them,” he said evenly.
She shivered as she clung to him. “Maybe you won't be able to. You know how they hate us, Tim. And that Lige Ludwell is . . . dangerous. Only today, down in the village, somebody told me Lige turned his own daughter out into the storm after whipping her with a leather strap—because she'd fallen in love with a boy Lige disliked. A man capable of doing a thing like that is capable of doing . . . uglier things.”
Croft summoned a smile. “Maybe they won't come here, after all.”
Even as he spoke the words, the trembling Jeb Starko pointed through the open doorway toward the road. “Don't fool yourself, doc. Here they be now!”
Tim Croft peered into the storm and saw a group of grim-visaged men slogging forward through the ankle- deep mud. Three carried lanterns, while the remaining pair bore a limp burden that sagged gruesomely between them. It was the inert form of a young girl, stripped stark naked and horribly pallid in the lantern glow.
Some inner sixth sense told Croft that the unclad girl was dead, and apprehension seized him when he recognized her as Lige Ludwell's daughter and saw the marks of a whiplash on her nude flesh. Lige was the acknowledged leader of the Ludwell clan, the bearded and sullen herb-dispenser responsible for most of the bad feeling against the hospital. But what had caused his girl's death, and why should he bring her body here?
The five surly mountaineers halted outside the door, and glowering Lige Ludwell stepped forward a truculent pace. “We-uns got business with you, doc,” he announced savagely.
“What kind of business?”
“We-uns want the witch-vampire.” “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Yes, you do. Hit's Eula Starko we-uns air after. She vampired my datter, here. She kilt her an' drank up her blood.” He gestured toward the pallid corpse held by his clansmen.
Croft's eyes narrowed. “There's no such thing as a witch-vampire. That's nonsense.”
“No hit ain't, Doc Croft. You're a-harborin' Eula Starko here in your horspital an' you know she's a blood-drinkin' vampire. She hexed my datter up to the holler tonight an' kilt her. Now we-uns air aimin' to take her away from you an' drive a hick'ry stake through her heart, by God!”
Jeb Starko clutched at Croft's arm. “Don't let 'em git my Eula!” he choked. “She hain't no witch-vampire.
She—she's jest sick.”
“No, Jeb. I won't let them take her. But she isn't sick. It's worse than that.” Tim Croft turned to the Ludwells. “I can prove you're wrong when you accuse Eula Starko of killing your girl tonight. You see, Eula died at four o'clock this afternoon.”
AWILD cry surged from Jeb Starko's thin throat.
“My Eula—dead? God, why didn't you tell me?”
“Hold it, Jeb. We did everything we possibly could for her. I told you at the start that she was suffering from nephrosis. That's an extremely rare disease, and very few cases ever pull through. You knew the treatment we were giving her. I'm sorry, old fellow. It wasn't anybody's fault. It was just Eula's time to go, I guess.”
Starko shambled out into the rain, dazed, his bony shoulders shaking, his sobs rising above the wail of the wind. Meanwhile, Lige Ludwell came pushing into the cabin, bearded jaw jutting pugnaciously. “You say the witch-vampire's dead. We-uns don't believe you. Weuns want to see her corpse.”
“I'm not compelled to show it to you, but I'm willing to let you look at her, just to prove my point,” Croft answered steadily. “First, though, I'll examine your daughter. I want to know what caused her death.”
They brought the Ludwell girl into the room and placed her naked body on the floor. And then Brenda Lemoyne gasped: “Tim—look!” She pointed a trembling forefinger.
He felt his scalp tightening. Marring the too-white flesh of the dead girl's throat, full over the jugular vein, were four deep incisions that looked as if they might have been made by the teeth of some sharp-fanged beast!
“Good God!” Tim Croft whispered as he went to his knees for a closer inspection of the wounds. Then he looked at the clansmen who clustered around him. “How did this happen? Tell me about it!”
Lige Ludwell snarled: “Reckon mebbe you'll be achangin' your mind about witch-vampires now. Anybody can tell what kind of thing made them tooth- marks.”
“Will you forget the witch-vampires and answer my question? I want to know how this happened.”
“How do we know? We-uns jest found her a-hangin' to a tree limb in the holler by Haunted Creek. A-hangin' upside down, by God, an' still warm to the touch. An' she'd been bled white, jest the way you see her now. But there warn't no blood on the airth underneath her.“
Croft blurted out the first words that popped into his mind. “Of course there wouldn't be any blood. The rain washed it away, naturally. All the same, this is murder. Somebody killed the girl and then tried to make it look like the work of a vampire in order to alibi himself.” His mouth compressed, “I heard you whipped her and kicked her out of your house today because she was having a love affair. Maybe—”
Ludwell let out a bellow of rage. “Air you accusin' me of killin' my own datter? We-uns will git even with you for that, Doc Croft! Mark my words, you an' your nurses will wish you'd never set foot in these here mountains afore I git through with you!” He balled his fists and looked ready to spring, his eyes glowing like those of some feral animal.
CROFT drew his revolver, cocked it. “Keep your distance, Ludwell. I didn't make any accusations. I merely stated a fact. As for your threats—well, you're already trying to start trouble. By blaming the murder of your daughter on Eula Starko, you're hoping to stir up a lot of ill will toward the hospital because we harbored her, as you call it. Well, I can put a stop to that. I've already told you that Eula died at four o'clock this afternoon. You say you found your girl later tonight— still warm. Dead people don't commit murders.”
“Witch-vampires kin. Because they don't die. Not really.”
“That's crazy talk!” Croft snapped. He was growing tired of this superstitious palaver, this sinister harping on witches and vampires. Another ten or fifteen minutes of it and he'd be getting jittery himself. He stood upright. “Eula's body is still in the hospital building where I left her when she died. I couldn't make any arrangements for removing her corpse on account of the storm. Now come with me, all of you. I'll prove what I'm saying.”
Muttering, the Ludwells permitted themselves to be herded out into the rain. Brenda Lemoyne kept very close to Tim Croft, while Jeb Starko trailed along behind. They crossed the clearing to the hospital building, a low, one-story structure of hewn logs, just large enough to accommodate four beds, a surgery and a dispensary. Croft opened the front door, waved the others in, and made a light.
Brenda Lemoyne's hand flew to her mouth. “Tim!” she gasped. Her frightened gaze went to the mussed bed where Jeb Starko's lovely young wife had reposed in death's stillness. “Her body—it's gone, Tim! Gone!”
It was true. The bed was empty. Cold sweat formed on Tim Croft's palms, and he stifled the startled oath that leaped to his lips as he stared about the room. For a dead woman to vanish, to disappear into thin air of her own volition, was obviously impossible. Yet, apparently, that was what had happened.
“Eula! My Eula!” Jeb Starko strangled. He wheeled to face the scowling Ludwell clan. “You-all took her, damn your souls to hell! One of you came here an' stole her away while the rest was a-talkin' to Doc Croft!
He would have leaped to attack the five burly clansmen, but Tim Croft grabbed him, pinioned him and fought him to calmness. And then Lige Ludwell, prowling toward the far end of the room, emitted a sudden roaring yell of triumph. “Come an' look at this!” he shouted. “I reckon you'll believe me now when I say Eula Starko is a witch-vampire!”
Everyone raced to the door through which Lige pointed, with the doctor in the lead. At the threshold, Croft froze in horror. “God in heaven!” he whispered as he stared into the surgery; and then he tried to shield the gruesome sight from Brenda Lemoyne.
In the little white-walled room the missing night- nurse, Edith Paxon, hung suspended upside down and naked from an overhead rafter, her curvesome body swaying gently, like a pendulum, and her flesh a horrible fish-belly white. Exactly like the wounds on the throat of Lige Ludwell's daughter, there were a series of sharp incisions over Edith Paxon's jugular, and ruby rivulets ran down from the punctures to drip slowly on the floor. But the flow of blood had almost ceased; and that was a strange thing, because in spite of the obvious fact that the nurse's veins had been completely drained, there was practically no blood on the floor beneath her head. Just a few spattered drops, and that was all!
BRENDA LEMOYNE trembled against Tim Croft. “Darling . . . can it be true? Did Eula Starko come back from death to drink Edith's blood . . .?”
“No!” he rasped. “It's not so! It can't be!” He grabbed for a stethoscope, jammed it against the slain nurse's heart and could find no trace of pulse-beat. “She's dead,” he announced grimly. “And I'm going down to report this to the sheriff! Come on, Brenda. We're getting out of here. Don't you Ludwells touch anything,” he warned.
“You needn't worry,” Lige Ludwell retorted. “Weuns air a-goin' out to hunt the witch-vampire afore she does any more killin'. Follow me, boys.”
Jeb Starko tried to block them. “I won't let you do anything to Eula!” he cried. “Maybe she is what you-all say. But she's my wife, an' I hain't a-goin' to let you—”
Lige struck him, knocked him staggering. “Shet up, you,” he growled ominously. Then he glared at Tim Croft and Brenda. “As for you two . . . well, your time's a-comin'. If you-all hadn't harbored the witch-vampire, none of this woulda happened.” He and his clan trooped out and vanished in the storm. Jeb Starko slunk after them like a whipped cur.
Croft took Brenda's arm. “I hope the car will run,” he said slowly. “Something tells me we haven't seen the last of this business tonight.” He led her toward the lean- to garage where he kept his rattletrap roadster.
She crouched close to him in the car, as if seeking the protection of his hard body. “Tim . . . I'm frightened. Do you think there could be such a thing as—what the Ludwells claim?”
“No. Of course not.” Secretly he wasn't so sure. All his knowledge, all his scientific and medical training, rebelled against the belief that a dead woman could have arisen from her bed to kill two young girls and drink their blood. And yet—how else could it have happened? Who else could have been responsible? And where had Eula Starko's corpse gone?
“Tim!” Brenda faltered. “After we go to the village and report these th-things to the sheriff, let's not come back here tonight. Please!”
“All right,” he patted her cheek. “We won't come back until daylight, my dear.” He stepped on the starter, and the motor responded with a heartening clatter. He headed for the muddy, deep-rutted road; saw no trace of the Ludwells. It was as if the night had opened up and swallowed them.
He drove in silence—until suddenly he felt the front wheels bogging down in an unexpected morass of red gumbo. “Damn!” he muttered as he gunned the engine. The little roadster slewed sidewise, settled deeper. And there it stuck.
“Guess I'll have to deflate the rear tires for traction,” he said sourly. He scrambled out, his feet sinking into the mire. He leaned over a back wheel, feeling for the valve—
Something leaped at him from the surrounding darkness, and a bludgeoning blow took him over the skull. Blinding lights cascaded through his brain, and he felt himself falling. As if from some other world, he heard Brenda shrilly screaming. He tried to right himself, to go to her aid. But smothering blackness swooped down on him, enfolded him. He toppled into the mud and lay there, unconscious.
HOW long it was before he regained his senses, he had no way of knowing. But when at last he staggered drunkenly to his feet, he was quite alone. Brenda Lemoyne wasn't in the roadster. There was no trace of her anywhere. “Brenda!” he shouted thickly. “Brenda!”
She didn't answer. He heard only the soughing of the wind, the hissing pelt of raindrops in the scrub oak. Sickened fear assailed him, then; fear, not for himself but for the girl he loved. He remembered the dark, sinister threats uttered by Lige Ludwell, and he recalled how Lige's daughter had died; how Edith Paxon had died. Maybe Brenda was even now hanging suspended head-downward somewhere, her life-blood being drained from her veins, either by vengeful clansmen or by something worse . . . such as an undead vampire- corpse . . .
Until tonight, he would have scoffed at such an eldritch, hellish fancy. But in view of what had already happened, a cold slime of horror slid into his marrow when he considered the possibility that the Ludwells had been right in accusing Eula Starko of vampirism. And while his reason rejected such an idea as fantastically impossible, his instinct compelled him to find out for himself; to learn the truth, one way or another. He started running through the storm.
The ridge lay to his left, and a tortuous footpath traversed it, precariously leading to the Starko cabin in Haunted Hollow. Up this treacherous path he stumbled, while branches flayed his face and snagged at his bathrobe and pajamas. Panting, winded, he presently gained the summit and started down, his feet slipping in the oozy muck. Then, dead ahead, he saw a light and realized that he had gained his destination. The Starko shack was before him.
Silently he stole toward it; reached the uncurtained window. He peered in—and felt the short hairs prickling at the nape of his neck. “My God!” he breathed.
Eula Starko, whom he had last seen lying in death back at the hospital, sat upright in a chair before a plain deal table. There were bowls before her; bowls containing thick red fluid that couldn't be anything else but blood. She was staring at the window, her eyes glassy and expressionless—and crimson streaks drooled from her mouth, down her chin, onto her breast.
Then, from somewhere up on the mountainside, there came a thin, wailing scream—a woman's scream, terror-spawned and hideous, as if ripped from the throat of a girl whose reason topples close to the brink of horrified insanity!
“Brenda!” Tim Croft choked. He turned and hurled himself back along the path, seeking the source of that keening sound.
As he ran, he heard it again; it seemed closer, this time. To his right he noticed a faint flicker of yellow light that seemed to glow from the mountain itself. He knew there were no cabins perched in that direction; the terrain was too steep, too inaccessible, for human habitation. Yet the light was real, and the scream was repeated again. “Tim—Tim—Help me—!” It died out abruptly, as if muffled by throttling fingers.
Tim Croft scrambled off the trail and started clawing his way toward the light, grasping at boulders and scrub oak to keep himself from falling into the hollow. Once a rock went out from under his foot, almost pitching him headlong to the creek-bed that brawled and seethed far below him. But he regained his footing and pressed onward with a madman's singleness of purpose; and at long last he came to the seeping light.
HE saw, then, that it emanated from the mouth of a cave that burrowed worm-like into the mountain's dank bowels. Within the cave, lanterns gleamed and men muttered quietly to drown the sobbing moans of their feminine prisoner. Tim Croft crouched low as he crept toward the sounds. Then a frantic fury gripped him, and his nails dug blood from his palms. “Brenda—!” he shouted.
She hung suspended by her ankles from an iron spike driven into the cave's left wall. Her clothing had been torn from her lilting body, leaving her charms exposed to the eyes of four Ludwells who hunkered down behind boulders beyond her. But at least there were no fang- marks on her sweet throat, and she seemed unharmed. Writhing and twisting, she was trying to raise herself in order to reach her fettered ankles. She saw Croft coming. “Tim—oh, thank God!” she moaned.
But he didn't reach her. As he sprang, the quartette of clansmen tackled him and threw him heavily to the floor of the cavern. He fought them like a maniac, striking out with fists and elbows and feet; but in the end, they subdued him, tied his wrists and ankles with rope and dragged him back behind their barricade of boulders. “Be quiet, unless you want us to kill ye right here an' now.”
“You fools! Let go me! What's the meaning of this?”
“We-uns air a-trappin' the witch-vampire, an' we're a-usin' your gal as bait for the trap, that's what.”
“Where's Lige? He's the one I've got to find! I—” “Lige is out a-scoutin' around. Now will ye shet up, or must we-uns crack your skull with a rock?”
“God! You men don't know what you're doing! If you persist in this thing, Miss Lemoyne's blood may be on your hands! You've got to cut her down, I tell you! A trap isn't necessary. I know the answer to—”
They hit him, then. A fist caromed off his jaw, dazed him into silence. Dimly, over the buzzing in his ears, he heard one of them say: “Reckon mebbe we'd better put out them lights. I've heerd tell witch-vampires like the dark better.” There came the shuffle of footsteps, and one by one the lanterns were extinguished. Blackness as solid as anthracite settled upon the cave, and a silence broken only by Brenda Lemoyne's muffled moans.
A sharp fragment of rock dug into Tim Croft's ribs, painfully, like the pressure of a blunt knife. He twisted aside, and a plan leaped into his brain. He pressed his bound wrists against the edge of the rock and began sawing the rope back and forth. He knew, now, that it had been the Ludwells who felled him back on the road; who had kidnapped Brenda and brought her here. And he rea1ized Lige Ludwell's schemes; knew what the consequences would be unless something could be done at once. . . .
A frayed strand parted, and then another. He worked with increased vigor, unmindful of the pain that coursed through him when he scraped his flesh against the jagged bit of rock. And then, finally, his fetters gave way. His hands were free. Silently in the darkness he leaned forward to attack the knots at his ankles. He plucked at them until the tips of his fingers were white- hot agony and his nails peeled back from the quick. It was just as he was untying the last loop of rope that he heard someone entering the cave.
HE gathered himself; prepared to leap. A match flared. Lige Ludwell was the newcomer. He was approaching the suspended girl, studying her, leaning toward her pulsating throat and holding the match close to her flesh. Terror slithered into her widened eyes. She screamed out her panic.
Tim Croft catapulted himself at Ludwell's broad, bowed back. And as he struck, Ludwell's match went out. The burly mountaineer squirmed around, tried to lock his thick fingers about Croft's gullet. Croft sensed the attempt, eluded it and smashed both knotted fists home to the bearded man's mouth. Lige Ludwell moaned and went limp, with Croft panting over him. Over behind the boulders, the other four clansmen were scrambling out to help their leader. One of them swore as he searched for a lantern.
“Quiet, you fools!” Tim Croft whispered harshly through the blackness. “Your trap is about to work. That's why I hit Lige; to keep him from giving us away. Down, all of you—unless you want to scare off your witch-vampire!”
There was a slithering sound at the mouth of the cave, and suddenly a hellish crimson effulgence glowed there like devil's fire. Through the dim ruby light a shape scuttled forward, and something clattered metallically. Brenda shrieked again. “Tim—it's got me—it's at my throat—”
He surged toward her, and his hard arms closed about a jerkily-writhing form. “You're all through killing girls for their blood, Jeb Starko!” he said as he bore the scrawny mountaineer to the cavern floor and pinned him there. “Make another light, you Ludwells. Starko's red lantern gives me the creeps!”
The clansmen came out of hiding, struck matches. Kerosene wicks flickered as flame was applied to them. Lige Ludwell swayed to his feet, staring stupidly. “You—you mean to say it was Jeb Starko that done all the killin'?”
Tim Croft nodded. “Hold him while I cut Miss Lemoyne down.” They obeyed willingly, and Croft slashed at Brenda's bonds with a borrowed blade. He stood her upright, peeled off his bathrobe, wrapped it around her and held her in his embrace. “It's all over, darling,” he whispered. “There'll be no more talk of vampirism in Haunted Hollow.”
Pinioned and helpless, Jeb Starko sobbed: “There never was no witch-vampires, damn ye all! You got no right to say—”
CROFT cast a pitying glance at the prisoner. “You're right, Jeb. There weren't any witch-vampires; there was only you, and your ignorance of medical methods. I had told you that your wife was suffering from nephrosis, a disease where the blood rejects proteins and refuses to transmit water to the kidneys. The only way to treat it is by transfusion—putting borrowed blood into the patient's veins.
“You knew we were keeping Eula alive by giving her new blood, refrigerated and shipped here from the county hospital blood bank. In spite of that, she kept getting worse. You conceived the idea that the reason she wasn't improving was because we weren't giving her enough fresh blood. You decided to do something about it.
“You caught Lige Ludwell's daughter in the woods, killed her, drained her veins into a tin bucket. You didn't know anything about transfusion methods; you thought the fluid was fed to your wife by mouth. You were going to bring the Ludwell girl's blood to the hospital for Eula—until you learned that the Ludwells had discovered the murder and jumped to a wrong conclusion.
“That scared you. You knew the Ludwells thought Eula was a vampire. So you came to the hospital to warn me. Then I told you your wife had died. You went almost crazy with grief. While I was palavering with the Ludwells in my cabin, you sneaked around to the hospital building and stole Eula's corpse, carried it into the woods and hid it. Maybe my night-nurse, Edith Paxon, was wandering around and caught you; I don't know. But I do know you killed her, took her into the surgery and drained her blood into a container.”
“I—I wanted to bring Eula back to life,” the man choked.
“Yes. I realized that when I saw her corpse in your cabin, with bowls of blood on the table and blood streaming down out of her mouth. You'd been trying to force it down her poor dead throat, hadn't you?”
“She . . . she wouldn't drink. I tried to make her, but she . . . she jest wouldn't. Then I thought it was because the blood was cold, mebbe. So I went out to try an' git some that was warmer . . .”
Croft nodded. “Yes. And you heard Miss Lemoyne screaming up here in this cave. So you came to investigate, carrying a red lantern you must have stolen from some road project.” He sighed as he turned to the Ludwells. “You men can understand the rest of it, I guess. And—well, I won't hold it against you for knocking me out and kidnapping my sweetheart. You were on the wrong track, but your trap worked.”
“Reckon mebbe we-uns been wrong about you, too, doc,” Lige Ludwell said. “Me an' the boys air willin' to be right friendly-like with you from now on, if hit suits you.”
Croft stuck out his hand. And then Jeb Starko, with a sudden burst of strength, broke away from his clansmen captors. “I'm a-goin' back to Eula!” he cried as he raced for the mouth of the cavern. But just as he reached the brink, he lost his footing. Screaming, he plunged downward; there came a crashing thud as his body impacted against the valley floor, far below. Then silence, save for the requiem of the rain and the wind's sighing dirge. . . .
They buried Jeb Starko and his wife in a single grave, the next day. Returning from the simple funeral, Tim Croft held Brenda Lemoyne very close to him. “Love's a queer thing, isn't it, my sweet?” he whispered.
“It's a very wonderful thing,” she answered, and held up her lips for his kiss.
Author: Robert Leslie Bellem
Source: Harvest Fields