Back | Next


I was born in Dubuque, Iowa, and at age ten moved with my family to Clinton, fifty miles south along the Mississippi River. Outsiders tend to think of Iowa as flat. Much of the state is, but where I come from the bluffs rise straight up out of the river. Dubuque has an operating cable car (funicular railway) that a wealthy banker built to carry him from his office in the floodplain to his home on the bluffs 300 feet above. The view out over the river into Illinois is spectacular.

Others thought so too. All over the area are Amerind grave mounds looking down from the bluffs. One of them’s on the farm that belonged to my father-in-law.

My dad was an electrician, but nobody in Iowa is very far from a farm. Family friends had farms when I was a boy; my wife’s family were and are dairy farmers. I’ve spent enough time on and around some of the most productive family farms in the world to have a feeling for the life.

Which is very, very hard. The work has to be done every day, no matter how you feel or what the weather’s doing: you can’t call in sick and tell the cows that they won’t be milked this morning. The machinery is dangerous beyond the imagination of a modern factory worker; the organo-phosphate insecticides were invented just in time for World War II, where they provided the Nazis with the first nerve gases; and even city-dwellers know that if anybody gets rich from agriculture, it isn’t the family farmer.

The characters in this story are modeled on real people but they’re not my in-laws. The farm is one my in-laws owned, including details like the curio cabinet and the hunting rifle.

I frequently use a story that has greatly impressed me as a model for one of my own. This isn’t quite so direct a case as some, but I want to mention the similarities to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Killdozer.” The title (which was the genesis of the story) comes from Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

* * *

As he swung the tractor for a final pass across Sac Ridge Field, Deehalter saw that dirt had been turned on the side of the Indian mound. The big man threw in the hand clutch of the Allis-Chalmers and throttled the diesel back to idle as he glared at the new trench through the barbed wire. “That goddam Kernes,” he whispered. “If I’ve got to work with him much longer . . . .”

He revved the engine and slammed the tractor back in gear. The farmer’s scowl was as black as the hair curling up his arms from the backs of his hands to the shirtsleeves rolled at his biceps.

At the south end of the field, Deehalter raised the cultivator and drove the Allis down the long, looping trail back to the farm buildings. There was a way of sorts straight west from the top of the ridge, but it was too steep for the tractor. The more gradual slope took Deehalter through half a dozen gates and eventually back to the buildings from the southwest. To the left loomed the barn and the three concrete silos peering over its roof at him. The milking parlor was a one-story addition to the barn’s east side, facing the equipment shed and the gas pump. And at the pump was Tom Kernes with his ten-year old son, Deehalter’s nephew, putting gas in the jeep.

Deehalter pulled up beside them and let the diesel clatter for a moment before he shut it off. Kernes, a short, ginger-headed man, looked up. His arms were not tan but a deep red, with brighter slashes where the straps of his undershirt had interrupted part of the sunlight. Kernes was thirty-five, five years younger than his brother-in-law, but his crinkly, sunburned face would have passed for any age. “Finish Sac Ridge already, Dee?” he asked in his pleasant, throaty voice. The tension in his muscles showed that he had correctly read Deehalter’s anger.

“Kernes, what’ve you been doing with the Indian mound?” the bigger man demanded from the tractor seat. “You know to leave that the hell alone!” A pick and shovel lay in the back of the jeep. Deehalter noticed them and a black flush moved across his face.

Kernes’ skin was too red to show the blood, but his voice rose to the challenge. “When Old John owned the farm, he could say what he pleased; but he’s dead now. I’m damned if I’m not going to get an Indian skull like yours.” Gesturing eastward at the ridge, the little man added, “I own half this goddam place and I’m going to get a skull.”

The curio cabinet in Deehalter’s parlor had been assembled by his grandfather before the first world war. Among its agates and arrowheads, sword-cane and ostrich plumes, was a brown human skull. The family had always assumed the skull came from a mound somewhere, but not even Old John had been sure. It fascinated Kernes, perhaps only because Deehalter had refused to give it to him. The main house and its furnishings, including the cabinet, had gone to Deehalter under his father’s will—just as the new house in which his sister Alice lived with Kernes and their children had gone to her. The rest of the six-hundred-acre farm was willed to Deehalter and Alice jointly, with the provision that if either of them tried to partition the property, the whole of it went to the other. Deehalter had talked to a lawyer and he was sure Kernes had done the same. The worst news either of the men had heard in a long time was that the will would probably stand up in court.

“There’s a law against digging up mounds,” Deehalter muttered.

“There’s a law against keeping an Indian skull on display,” the shorter man blazed back. “You going to bring the law in here, Dee?”

“Well, “Deehalter said lamely, “you don’t get everything in the mound. You’ve no right to that.”

Kernes stood, arms akimbo, sweat from the June sun glittering on his face. “If I do all the goddam digging, I do,” he said. “And anyhow, I get the skull out first.”

Deehalter wiped his face with his huge, calloused palm. He didn’t like to fool with the mound. Old John had whaled him within an inch of his life thirty years ago, when he had caught his son poking into the smooth slope with a posthole digger. But Deehalter remembered also the nightmare that had awakened him for months after that afternoon, and that dream was of nothing so common as a beating by his father. Still, to let Kernes take everything . . . .”All right,” Deehalter said, “I’ll help you dig. But I get my pick of anything besides a skull. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was gold in with a chief.”Actually, Deehalter knew enough about mounds to doubt there would be anything that would interest a non-archeologist—often the mounds hadn’t even been built over a body. But that wasn’t anything the big farmer was going to say to his brother-in-law.

“Dad,” said the Kernes boy unexpectedly.”If Uncle Dee helps you, you don’t need me, do you?”

Kernes looked at the child as though he wanted to hit him. “Go on, then,” he snapped. “But I want that goddam toolshed painted when I get back. All of it!”

The boy took off running for the house. Wiener, the farm’s part-collie, chased after him barking. “Kid’s been listening to his mother,” Kernes grumbled. “From the way Alice’s been carrying on, you’d think Old John was going to come out of his grave if I dug up that mound. He must’ve knocked that into her head with a maul.”

“He was strong on it,” Deehalter agreed absently.”I know when he was a boy, there was still a couple Sac Indians on the farm. Maybe they talked to him. But he was strong about a lot of things.”

“Well, you ready to go?” Kernes demanded. He had hung up the pump nozzle and now remembered to cap the jeep’s tank.

Deehalter grimaced.”I’ll put the cultivator in the shed,” he said. “Then we’ll go.”

Kernes drove, taking the direct trail through the east pasture. There was a rivulet to ford and a pair of gullies that had to be skirted, but the hard going didn’t start until they reached the foot of the ridge. They had bought the jeep ten years before from Army surplus, and the sharp grades of the ridge slope made the motor wheeze even in the granny gear. Cedars studded the slope, interspersed with bull thistles whose purple bracts were ready to burst open. There was a final switch-back just before the trail reached the summit. As Kernes hauled the wheel hard to the left, the motor spluttered and died. Deehalter swung out of the jeep and walked the last thirty yards while the smaller man cursed and trod on the starter.

The mound was built on the north end of the ridge. That part had never been opened as a field because the soil was too thinly spread above the bedrock. The mound was oval, about fifteen feet long on the east-west axis and three or four feet high. Though small, it was clearly artificial, a welt of earth on the smooth table of the ridge. Kernes’ trench was in the center of the south side, halfway in and down to the level of the surrounding soil. Deehalter was examining the digging when the jeep heaved itself up behind him and was cut off again.

“We just kept hitting rocks,” the smaller man explained. “We didn’t get near as far as I’d figured before we started.”

Deehalter squatted on his haunches and poked into the excavation with a finger like a corncob. “You didn’t hit rocks,” he said, “you hit a rock. One god-dam slab. There’s no way we’re going to clear that dirt off it without a week of work or renting a bulldozer. And even if we cleared down to the rock, that slab’s a foot thick and must weigh tons. We’re just wasting our time here—or we would be if we didn’t go on back right now.”

Kernes swore. “We could hook a chain to the Allis—” he began.

Deehalter cut him off. “We’d have to get the dirt off the top first, and that’d take all goddam summer. This was a bad idea to start, and it got worse quick. Come on, let’s go back.” He straightened.

“What about dynamite?” blurted Kernes.

Deehalter stared at his brother-in-law. The smaller man would not meet his gaze but continued, “There’s still a stick under the seat from when you blew up the beaver dam. We could use it.”

“Kernes,” Deehalter said, “you’re so afraid of that dynamite that you’d rather leave it in the jeep than touch it to get it out. Besides, it’ll blow the shit out of anything under that slab—if there is anything and the slab’s not flat on bedrock all the way across. What’re you trying to prove?”

Kernes’ red face grew even brighter with embarrassment, oranger.”Look,” he said, “I’m gonna get into this goddam thing if I got to hire a contractor. I said I would and I will. You don’t want to help, that’s your goddam business.”

Deehalter eyed him a moment longer. “Oh, I’ll do my part,” he said. He gestured to the pick and added, “You see if you can cut a slot an inch deep and maybe eight inches long in the seam between the top slab and the bedrock. I’ll get the dynamite ready.” He grinned. “Unless you want to do that instead?”

Kernes’ only response was to heft the tool with a choked grip and begin chopping at the stone.

Deehalter flipped the jeep’s seat forward and lifted out the corrugated cardboard box beneath it. There was, as Kernes had said, still one stick of dynamite left along with a roll of wire and a smaller box of blasting caps. The explosive terrified Kernes in the way snakes or spiders do other men. Deehalter had deliberately refused to take the stick out of the jeep despite his brother-in-law’s frequent requests. Finally Kernes had ceased to mention it—until now. Kernes was so stubbornly determined to have an Indian skull that he had overridden his fear of the explosive. It occurred to Deehalter that he was doing the same thing himself with his fear of the mound.

The big farmer leaned against the jeep as he dug a fuze pocket in the dynamite with a pencil stub. Kernes was chipping the soft rock effectively, even in the confined space. “Not too wide,” Deehalter warned as he twisted the leads from the blasting cap onto the extension wire.

He didn’t like what they were doing. Shapes from long-ago nightmares were hovering over his mind, unclear but no less unpleasant for that. He’d never heard of Indians using stone in their mounds, and that bothered him too. Still, why not? The Mississippi Basin was rich in soft yellow limestone, already layered by its floodings and strandings in the shallow seas of its deposition. So it wasn’t the stone or anything else rational which was eating at Deehalter; it was just that something felt cold and very wrong inside him.

“That enough, Dee?” Kernes asked, panting. His sleeveless undershirt was gray with sweat.

Deehalter leaned forward.”It’ll do,” he acknowledged. Kernes was shrinking back from the explosive in Deehalter’s hand.”Run the jeep over the crest of the ridge and get the hood open. There’s enough wire to reach to there.”

While his brother-in-law scrambled to obey, Deehalter knelt in the trench and made his own preparations. First he set the blasting cap in the hole in the end of the dynamite. Then he carefully kneaded the explosive into the slot Kernes had cut in the rock. The heavy waxed paper and its fillings of sawdust, ammonium nitrate, and nitroglycerin were hot and deformed easily. A lot of people didn’t know how to use dynamite; they wasted the force of the blast. Deehalter didn’t want to blow the mound open, but he’d be damned if he wouldn’t do it right if he did it at all.

When the dynamite had been molded into the rock, the big man shoveled dirt down on top of it and used his boots to firmly tamp the pile. The thin wire looped out of the earth like the shadow of a grass blade. Deehalter hung the coil on the pick handle, using it as a loose spindle from which to unwind the wire as he walked to the jeep.

“This far enough away?” Kernes asked, eying the mound apprehensively.

“Unless a really big chunk comes straight down,” Deehalter said, silently pleased at the other man’s nervousness. “Christ, it’s just one stick, even if it is sixty-percent equivalent.”

Kernes bent down behind the jeep. Deehalter squatted at the front, protected from the blast by the brow of the hill. He held the bare end of one wire to the negative post of the battery, then touched the other lead to the positive side. Nothing happened. “God dammit,” he said, prodding the wire to cut through the white corrosion on the post.

The dynamite exploded with a loud thump.

“Jesus!” Kernes shouted as he bounced to his feet. Deehalter, more experienced, hunched under his baseball cap while dirt and tiny rock fragments rained over him and the jeep. Then at last he stood and followed his brother-in-law. The smaller man was now cursing and trying to brush dirt from his head and shoulders with his left hand; in his right he carried a battery spotlight.

Acrid black smoke curled in the pit like a knot of snakes. The sod walls of the trench looked as they had before the explosion, but the earth compacted over the charge was gone and the exposed edge of the rock slab had shattered. Because the limestone could neither move nor compress, the shock had broken it as thoroughly as a twenty-foot fall could have.

Kernes bent down over the opening and grasped a chunk of stone to toss out of the way. The dynamite fumes looped a tendril over his face. Kernes coughed and quivered, and for an instant Deehalter thought the other man lost focus. Then Kernes was on his feet again, fanning the shovel blade to clear the smoke faster and crying, “By God, Dee, there’s really something in there! By God!”

Deehalter waited, frowning, as Kernes shoveled at the rubble. A little prying with the blade was enough to crumble the edge of the slab into fist-sized pieces like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. More dirt fell in, but that was easily scooped away. The actual opening stayed small because the only cavity in the bedrock was a shallow, water-cut basin. It sloped so gradually that even after a two-foot scallop had been nibbled from the overlying slab there was barely enough room to reach an arm into the hollow.

The fumes had dissipated. Kernes scattered a last shovelful of dirt and gravel, then tossed the tool aside as well. Kneeling down with his face as close to the opening as he could get it and still leave room for the spotlight, he began to search the cavity. “God damn,” Kernes said suddenly. “God damn!” He tried to reach in left-handed, found there was too little room, and shoved the light back out of the way since he had already located the object in his head. The spotlight beam touched grass blades shaded from the sun, a color rather than an illumination.

“Look at this, Deehalter!” cried Kernes as he scrabbled backward. “By God!”

“I’ve seen skulls before,” the black-haired man said sourly, eyeing the discolored bone which his brother-in-law held hooked through the eye sockets. The lower jaw was missing, but the explosion seemed to have done little damage. Unless the front teeth . . . .

“There’s other stuff in there too,” Kernes bubbled.

“Then it’s mine,” said Deehalter sharply.

“Did I goddamn say it wasn’t?” Kernes demanded. “And you can get it out for yourself, too,” he added, looking down at his shirt, muddied by dirt and perspiration.

Deehalter said nothing further. He lay down carefully in the fresh earth and directed the spotlight past his head. He could see other bones in the shallow cavity. The explosion had shaken them, but their order was too precise for any large animals to have stripped away the flesh. Indeed, the bundles of skin and tendon still clinging to the thighs indicated that not even mice had entered the tomb. The stone-to-stone seal must have been surprisingly close.

Metal glittered beyond the bones. Deehalter marked its place and reached in, edging himself forward so that his shoulder pressed hard against the ragged lip of the slab. He expected to feel revulsion or the sudden fear of his childhood, but the cavity was dry and empty even of death. His wrist brushed over rib bones and he thought the object beyond them was too far; then his fingertips touched it, touched them, and he lifted them carefully out.

Kernes stopped studying the skull in the sunlight from different angles. “What the hell you got there. Dee?” he asked warily.

Deehalter wasn’t sure himself, so he said nothing. He held the two halves of a hollow metal teardrop, six inches long. On the outside it was black and bubbled-looking; within, the spherical cavity was no larger than a hickory nut. The mating surfaces and the cavity itself were a rich silver color, untarnished and as smooth as the lenses of a camera.

“One of them’s mine,” said Kernes abruptly.”The skull and half the rest.”He reached for one of the pieces.

“Like hell,” said Deehalter, mildly because he was concentrating on the chunks of metal. His big shoulder blocked Kernes away without effort.”Besides, it’s all one thing,” he added, holding the sections so that the polished surfaces mated. Then, when he tried to part them, the halves did not reseparate.

“Aw,” Kernes said in disbelief and again put a hand out for the object. This time Deehalter let him take it. Despite all the ginger-haired man’s tugging and pushing, the teardrop held together. It was only after Kernes, sweating and angry, had handed back the object that Deehalter found the trick of it. You had to rotate the halves along the plane of the separation—which, since there was no visible line, was purely a matter of luck the first time it worked.

“Let’s get on home,” Deehalter said. He nodded westward toward the sun. Sunset was still an hour away, but it would take them a while to drive back. The ridge was already casting its broad shadow across the high ground to the east. “Besides,” Deehalter added, almost under his breath, “I don’t like the feeling I get up here sometimes.”

But it was almost two weeks before Deehalter had any reason for his uneasiness. . . .

* * *

Despite the full moon low in the west and the light of the big mercury vapor lamp above the cow yard to the north of the barn, the plump blonde stumbled twice on the graveled path to the car. The second time she caught Deehalter’s arm and clung there giggling. More to be shut of her than for chivalry, the farmer opened the passenger door of the Chrysler and handed her in. Naturally, she flopped across his lap when he got in on the driver’s side. He pushed her upright in disgust.

It was 3 a.m. and there were no lights yet in Alice and her husband’s house. Deehalter knew they had seen him bring Wendy home in the evening, knew also that Wiener would awaken them as he chased the car. Kernes had once complained to Deehalter, red-faced, about the example he set for his nephew and nieces by bringing whores home to their grandfather’s house. Deehalter had told him that under the will it was his house, and that when Kernes and Alice quit fucking in their house, he’d consider quitting it in his. The smaller man hadn’t quite taken a swing as Deehalter had hoped he might.

When the car began to scrunch down the drive past the new house, Wiener came loping toward them from the barn. He barked once every other time his forefeet touched the ground. The noise was more irritating than even a quick staccato would have been. The car windows were closed against the night’s damp chill. Deehalter’s finger was poised on the switch to roll the glass down and shout at the mongrel, when Wendy’s scream snapped his head around.

The bank to the left sloped up from the drive, so the thing standing there was only in the edge of the lights. It was wire thin and tall—twice the height of a man at a fleeting glance, though a part of Deehalter knew that was the effect of the bank and the angle. A flat lizard-snout of teeth glittered sharply. Then the beast turned and the big car leaped forward down the drive as Dee-halter floored the accelerator. Wendy was still screaming, her face buried in her hands, when the car banged over the slotted cattle-guard and fishtailed onto the gravel county road.

Deehalter kept his speedometer dangerously above sixty for the first three miles, until they reached the tavern and gas station at Five Points. There he braked to a stop and turned on the dome light. The girl whimpered. Deehalter’s big hands gripped her shoulders and hauled her upright. “Shut up,” he said tightly.

“W-what was it?” she blubbered.

“Shut up, for Christ’s sake!” Deehalter shouted. “It wasn’t a goddamned thing!” He brought his face close to Wendy’s. The girl’s eyes were as fearful as they had been minutes before at the sight of the creature. “You saw a cat in the headlights, that’s all. You’re not going to get everybody and his brother tramping over my farm shooting my milking herd. You’re going to keep your goddamn mouth shut, do you hear?”

The blonde was nodding to the rhythm of Deehalter’s words. Tears streamed from her eyes, and when she tried to wipe them she smeared the remains of her eye shadow across her cheeks.

Deehalter released her suddenly and put the car in gear. Neither of them spoke during the rest of the ride to town. When the big farmer stopped in front of the girl’s apartment, she stumbled out and ran up the steps without bothering to close the car door. Deehalter locked it after he slammed it shut.

He drove back to the farm at a moderate pace that slowed appreciably as he came nearer. The night had only its usual motions and noises now. Deehalter was waiting in his locked car an hour later, alone with nothing but a memory to disturb him, when Kernes came out of his house to start milking.

After lunch—a full meal of fried steak and potatoes; Deehalter had cooked for himself and his father as well before Old John died—the big man walked down the drive and began searching the grassy bank to the left of it. Once when he looked up, he saw his sister watching him intently from the Kernes’ kitchen window. He waved but she ducked away. Toward three o’clock, Kernes himself came back in the jeep from inspecting the fences around the northwest pasture. Deehalter hailed him. After a moment’s hesitation, the ginger-haired man swung the vehicle up the bank and stopped.

“Come look at this,” Deehalter said. The turf was marked fuzzily where he pointed. “Doesn’t it look like three claw prints?” he asked.

Kernes looked at him strangely. “Claw prints? What do you mean, Dee?”

“It—oh, Christ, I don’t know,” said the big man, straightening and lifting his cap to run his hand through his hair. He looked glumly back past the barn to the long bulk of Sac Ridge.

“Haven’t seen Wiener today, have you?” Kernes asked unexpectedly.

“Not since I took Wendy home this morning,” replied Deehalter, his own expression odd. “Barked at the car as usual. You must’ve heard him.”

“Learned to sleep through it, I guess,” said Kernes, and the words did not quite ring true . . . though that might have been the blurred print on the ground and Deehalter’s blurred memory of what had made the print. Kernes got into the jeep. “Usually he chases a rabbit, he gets back for breakfast. Kids’ve about worried me to death about that damn dog.”

“I’ll ride to the barn with you,” Deehalter said. They did not speak about the dog—or the print—for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening, after Deehalter had finished his turn at milking, Alice came out to the barn to help wash down the equipment. Alice Kernes was ten years younger than her brother. Though they had never been close, there was a thread of mutual affection despite Deehalter’s reciprocated hatred for his brother-in-law. Alice hummed as she polished the glass tubing and stainless steel; a short woman with her black hair tied back by a kerchief and a man’s shirt flapping over the waistband of her gray skirt.

“Wiener been back yet?” Deehalter asked with feigned disinterest.

“No, have you seen him?”Alice said, pausing to catch the shake of Deehalter’s head. “Susie’s been crying all day. Tom went out to quiet the dog down this morning and I think he scared him off. But he’ll be back tonight, I figure.”

Deehalter flipped the switch that would drain the water now being cycled through the transfer piping. “Kernes got up to chase him?”

“Uh-huh. Did you get the big tank?”

“Yeah, we can call it a night,” Deehalter said. Bloodstains are hard to identify in heavy grass, harder even than footprints in the sod beneath, so he made no mention of the splotches he had found thirty yards from the drive that afternoon. There had been no body, not even a swatch of dog fur torn off in a struggle.

But despite that, Deehalter guessed that the mongrel would not be coming home that night.

A cow awakened Deehalter with a blat like a cut-off klaxon horn. His Remington .30-06 leaned against the window frame, bathed in moonlight. Deehalter stripped a shell into the autoloader’s chamber from the full magazine before he pulled on his dungarees and boots. Shirtless, his baggy trousers weighted down by the rest of the box of ammunition, Deehalter unlocked the front door and began running across the yard.

There were one hundred and sixty cattle in the barn, and from the noise they had all gone wild. Over their bellows came clatters and splintering as the frantic tons of beef smashed the fittings of the barn. Normally in the summer, the cows were free to wander in and out of the yard and to the pasture beyond, but tonight Deehalter had penned them for safety. He was a hundred feet from the electric fence of the yard, cursing his mistake in having concentrated the herd and then left it unprotected, when one of the black-and-white Holsteins smashed from the barn into the cow yard through both halves of the Dutch door.

There was something behind it.

The thing’s tongue and the blood on its jaws were black in the mercury floodlight. Erect against the side of the barn it was almost eight feet tall, though only the shadows gave mass to its spindly limbs. It saw Deehalter and skidded on the slippery concrete, its claws rasping through the slime. Deehalter threw his rifle to his shoulder. It was as if he were aiming at a skeleton made of coat hangers, the thing was so thin. Deehalter’s hands shook. The creature bent forward, cocking its hips back for balance. It opened its jaws so wide that every needle tooth seemed pointed at the farmer. Then it screamed like a plunging shell as Deehalter fired. His bullet punched neatly through the side of the barn ten feet above the ground.

With a single stride, the creature disappeared back within the building. Deehalter slammed another shot through the empty doorway.

Panting, the big man knelt and fumbled out the box of ammunition without letting go of the rifle. His shoulder ached. The empty cases shone silver pale on the grass to his right. When Deehalter had reloaded, he shuffled forward again. He held his rifle out as if he were thrusting it through fluid. The yard was filled with milling cows. Deehalter moved past them to the low milking parlor and tried in vain to peer through the dusty windows. Then, holding the rifle awkwardly like a huge pistol, he unlatched the door and flipped on the light. There was nothing in the parlor, and its metal gates to the barn were still closed.

Deehalter turned on the lights in the main building. There was only a score of frightened cows still within. The half-loft eight feet above the bare floor had only a little straw in it. The loft door in the south wall hung askew. There were deep scratches around its broken latch. From the left, Deehalter grimly surveyed the barn. The interior walls were spattered with blood. A heifer was dead in her stall; long gouges reddened the hides of several others of the herd.

It was almost dawn. The black-haired farmer stood at the loft door, cursing and staring out into the red sunrise, which pulled the shadow of the ridge like a long curtain over the pasture.

The door to the milking parlor banged. Deehalter swung around and raised the muzzle of his rifle. It was Kernes barefooted and in torn pajamas with Alice, wide-eyed, behind him. Seeing the blood and the dead heifer, she shouted at her husband, “My God, Tom, have you and George been shooting cows?”

Kernes gaped. Deehalter couldn’t understand why the question was directed at his brother-in-law.”No, it was a, a—”Deehalter began and stuttered to a halt, uncertain both of the truth and what he should say about it. To change the subject he said, “We got to phone Doc Jepson. Some of the cows’ been—cut.”

“Phone the vet?” blazed Alice—Kernes still had not spoken. She reached back into the parlor for the extension which hung on the wall higher than a cow carries its head. “We’ll call the Sheriff, we’ll call—”

“Put down that goddamn phone!” Deehalter said, not loudly but too loudly to be ignored by anyone who knew him well.

Alice was in a rage herself, but she stepped back from the phone and watched her brother descend carefully from the loft. “What did it, George?” she asked.

“I didn’t get a good look.”

“God dammit, George,” Alice said, letting go of her anger now that Deehalter had cooled enough not to shoot her dead in a fury, “why won’t you let me get help?”

“Because we’re in the milk business,” the big man said, sagging against the ladder in mental exhaustion. Kernes wasn’t really listening; Alice’s face was blank. “Because if we go tell people there’s an eight-foot lizard on our farm—”

Kernes swore. Deehalter shouted, “All right, I saw it, what the hell’s the difference? Something killed the cow, didn’t it?” He glared at the others, then went on, “First they’ll think we’re crazy. And then when they learn it’s true, they’ll say, ‘Strontium 90,’ or ‘What’re they spraying their fields with to do that?’ or ‘There’s something in their water.’ And we’ll never sell another pint of milk from here as long as we live. You know what the dairy business is like!”

Alice nodded sharply.”Then we’ll just raise hogs,” she said, “or corn—or we’ll sell the farm and all get jobs with Purina, for God’s sake. Spring Hill Dairies isn’t the whole—”


Kernes’ eyes were flicking from one sibling to the other, a spectator rather than a referee. Alice glared at him, then said to her brother, “All right, George. But I’m taking the kids into town to stay with Iris until you come to your senses.” Then, to her husband, she added, “Tom, are you coming too?”

“If you leave here, Kernes,” said Deehalter quietly, “you’ll never come back. I don’t give a shit what the law says.”

The men stared at each other. “I’ll stay,” Kernes said. Alice banged through the gate and into the milking parlor without a look behind her.”I’d have stayed anyway, Alice!” the smaller man shouted.

“Call Doc Jepson,” Deehalter repeated wearily. “We can tell him it was dogs or something—” the tooth marks were too high and broad for that to be other than a transparent lie—”and hope we can scotch this thing before worse happens.”

Numbly, Kernes made the call. As the little man hung up, they heard the rasping starter of the old station wagon. A moment later, gravel spattered as Alice rocketed down the drive. Almost as fast as he himself had driven the night before, Deehalter thought.

“It’s because of what we took out of that mound,” Kernes said in a small voice.

Deehalter shook his head in irritation. “This thing didn’t come from a skull or a little bit of iron,” he snapped. “It’s big, big enough to kill a Holstein.”

“It was there just the same,” Kernes replied. “We’ve got to close that grave up with everything in it again. Then maybe we’ll be okay.”

“You’re nuts,” Deehalter said. But he remembered the thing’s eyes and the gape of its jaws; and he knew that sometime that day he would help Kernes bury the objects again.

Deehalter walked to the mound and the parked jeep without speaking. In the field behind him, the crows settled noisily on the carrion again.

Kernes had lifted out a pair of shovels and the gunny sack holding the objects. “Well?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Deehalter with a shrug, “it was Wiener.”

Kernes began to undo the knot which closed the sack’s throat. Without looking up, he said, “I think it’s the moon. That’s why it didn’t come out when we opened the mound. It needed the full moon to bring it out.”

“Bullshit,” said Deehalter.”I saw the thing and it’s not moonlight, it’s as solid as you or me. Damn sight solider than old Wiener there,” he added with a grim twist of his head. “Moonlight’s just light, anyway.”

“Fluorescent light’s just light too,” Kernes retorted, “but it makes plants grow like they don’t with a regular light bulb. Christ, Dee, don’t you feel the moon on you at night?”

Deehalter did, but he wasn’t about to admit that weakness even in the noon sun. Kernes had paused after opening the bag, unwilling either to dump the contents back into the hole without ceremony or to touch them again barehanded. The big man hesitated also. Then he glanced at the guns in easy reach, between the front seats of the jeep, and lifted out the skull.

The bone felt warm. Because Deehalter had not really taken a look at it before, he did so now at this last opportunity. The teeth were damaged in a way that at first he could not explain. Then the farmer cursed, set the skull down on the ground, and stretched out in the open trench. The angle was too flat for Deehalter to have been able to see anything even if he had brought a flashlight this trip, but his fingertips found the shallow grooves he expected in the under-surface of the slab.

“Christ,” he muttered, standing up again. “That poor sucker was alive when they covered him up in there. He didn’t have a damned thing to dig with, so he tried to scrape through the stone with his teeth.”

Kernes stared at the skull and looked a little sicker than he had before. His finger traced but did not touch the front teeth. All four of the incisors were worn across the flats as if by a file. They had been ground down well into the nerve canals. One of the front pair had cracked about halfway from the root. “Yeah, I’d seen that but I didn’t think . . . “ he said. “Jesus, what a way to go. He surely must’ve known he couldn’t chew his way through a foot of rock.”

“Maybe he didn’t know there was a foot of it,” Deehalter said. “Besides, he didn’t have a lot of choice.”

Carefully, the big man set the skull as far back into the mound as his arm would reach. The litter of bone and rock chips within scrunched under his shirtsleeve.

The rippled, iron teardrop was still closed. Deehalter looked at it for a moment, then twisted it to split the halves because they had been separate when he found them. The metal divided with a soft gasp like a cold jar being opened. Deehalter set the halves under the slab as carefully as he had the discolored skull.

Almost before he rolled out of the way, his brother-in-law was tossing a shovelful of earth into the hole. Kernes worked feverishly at the soil pile he and his son had thrown up in digging the pit. By the time Deehalter had brushed himself off and picked up a shovel, the blast-crumbled edge of the slab had been buried again.

They finished their work before noon, leaving on the mound’s side a black scar that sealed off the greater blackness within.

The barn windows were green fiberglass which the western moonlight outlined sharply against the walls. The diffused illumination was weak and without distinct shadows, It made the loft floor an overlay of grays on grays which wobbled softly as Deehalter paced along it. The cattle penned below murmured, occasionally blatting loudly at their unfamiliar restraint. At each outburst, Deehalter would pause and lean over the loft rail with his rifle forward; but the bellowing was never for any reason that had to do with why two armed men were watching the barn tonight.

At the north end of the loft, Deehalter stopped and looked out the open loading door. The cow yard below was scraped and hosed off daily, but animal waste had stained the concrete an indelible brown which became purple in the mercury light.

To the left, within the fence of the cow yard and in the corner it formed with the barn, hunched Kernes with a shotgun loaded with deer slugs. From Deehalter’s angle, the smaller man was foreshortened into a stump growing from the concrete. Nothing moved in the night, though the automatic feeder in the hog pens flapped several times. As Deehalter watched silently, Kernes looked up at the moon. Despite the coolness of the night and the breeze from the west, Kernes pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead.

Deehalter turned and began pacing back to the south end of the barn. He had finished his thermos of coffee hours ago, and it was only by staying in motion that he was able to keep awake. He couldn’t understand how Kernes could huddle in the same corner since ten o’clock and still be alert; but then, Kernes wasn’t a person Deehalter wanted to understand.

Deehalter peered out the south door. Nothing, nothing, of course nothing. A fox barked in the invisible distance and the big man’s grip tightened on his rifle stock. He caught himself before he threw a bullet out into the night in frustration; then he began to pace back.

But each time the creature had come, it was in the near dawn. As if it were striding to the farm from far away, or because it got a late start. The notch he and Kernes had blasted in the Indian mound faced southwest. Moonlight would not have entered it until nearly morning. But there was no living thing in that narrow rock basin, only a litter of bones and what was probably a meteorite.

Why had that Indian been sealed up alive?

Nothing but bones and iron in the mound. Briefly, Deehalter’s mind turned over a memory of awakening to seize his rifle in the pattern of moonlight etched across his room by the Venetian blinds. Now he held the weapon close and bent forward to look at his brother-in-law.

Kernes had moved slightly, out along the electric fence. The yard light colored his shirt blue but could not throw a shadow forward into the glare of the full moon. Kernes was staring west at that mottled orb. His shotgun barrel traced nervous arcs, rising and slipping back to a high port. It was almost as if the smaller man were wishing he could fire at the moon, but catching himself a moment before he did anything that . . . crazy.

Kernes’ body slithered.

“Kernes!” Deehalter screamed.

The man below turned and was a man again. The shotgun had fallen to the concrete. Kernes’ clothing was awry from having something monstrously thin start to clamber out of it. Part of Deehalter’s mind wondered what Kernes had thought in the mornings when he found himself naked in the pasture, his tangled pajamas outside his house.

Now the small farmer was looking up at Deehalter, his face as dead and horrified as that of the statue of Laocoon. Then he changed again, and the long jaws spread to hiss at the man above. Deehalter laid his open sights in the middle of the thing’s breastbone and squeezed off the shot.

The bullet flew high because of the angle, but the big man was hunter enough to have allowed for that. The soft-nose spiked through the lower mandible and into the throat, exiting at last through the creature’s back. The jacketed lead, partly expanded but with only a fraction of its energy gone, slapped the concrete beyond and splashed away in a shower of sparks and a riven howl.

The thing that had been Kernes hurtled backwards and slid until it struck the fence. Its stick-thin limbs thrashed, shredding remnants of its clothing with claws and the strength of a grizzly. Its jaws snapped. The hole in its throat was small, but Deehalter knew that the supersonic bullet would have left a wound cavity like a pie tin in the back.

The entrance wound had closed. The beast was scrabbling to its feet.

Deehalter screamed and shot it through the chest, an off-center impact that spun the creature again to the concrete. This time Deehalter could see the plastic flesh closing on the scale-dusted torso. He remembered Wiener and the gullied throat of the Holstein. With only that instant’s hesitation, the big man braced his rifle in front of him and leaped through the window to his right. The fiberglass panel sprang out in a piece as the frame tore. Deehalter stumbled headlong onto the low roof of the milking parlor, rolled, and jumped to the ground. The jeep was only twenty feet away and he ran for it.

There was no ignition lock. Deehalter flipped the power on and stabbed at the starter button under the clutch pedal. The engine ground but did not catch. There was a tearing noise behind him, and despite himself the big man turned to look. The creature was in the cow yard fence. The top strand was electrified. Blue sparks crackled about the thing’s foreclaws. Its shape was in a state of flux so swift as to be almost subliminal. It was as if superimposed holograms of Kernes and the creature he had become were being projected onto the fence. Then the hot wire snapped and the thing’s legs cut the remaining strands like sickles through fog.

Deehalter fired one-handed and missed. He steadied the rifle, locking his left elbow on the tubular seat-frame, and knocked the creature back into the cow yard with no top to its skull. Then the engine chugged and the big farmer threw the jeep into second gear at higher revs than the worn clutch was used to. Spewing gravel but without the power to sideslip, the vehicle churned forward.

For choice, Deehalter would have run west for the county road as he had two nights before in his Chrysler. That would have meant turning and trying to race past the cow yard, where the creature was already on its feet again and striding toward him. Deehalter had small need of his imagination to picture that scene: the long-clawed arms hooking over the steering wheel and plucking him out like the meat from a walnut half, leaving the empty jeep to careen into a ditch. He was headed instead toward Sac Ridge and the mound from which the horror must have come.

Deehalter had the headlights on, but they were mounted too low to show up potholes in time even at moderate speed—and his present speed was anything but moderate. The jeep jounced so badly that only the big man’s grip on the steering wheel kept him in the vehicle. The shovels in the back did spin out into the night. It occurred to Deehalter that the rifle which he had wedged butt-downward beneath the back seat might fire and end him permanently as it had been unable to do to the thing pursuing. He did not care. He only knew that he had looked down the creature’s gaping jaws and would rather anything than die between them.

Despite his panic, Deehalter shifted into compound low to cross the stream, knowing that any attempt to mount the slippery bank in a higher gear would have meant sliding back into certain death. On the rutted pasture beyond, he revved and slam-shifted. He was proud of his skill only for the instant before the low moon flicked a leaping shadow across the corner of his eye. Fear washed away pride and everything else.

Despite the ruts the jeep made good time in the pasture, but as the old vehicle began to climb the side of the ridge Deehalter knew the creature must be gaining. There was no choice, nowhere else to run. If he turned either north or south, the thing’s long shanks would cut it across the slant of his right angle.

Where had the creature come from originally? Perhaps the Indians had known; but even if the teardrop was the source, it could as easily have fallen a million years before and a thousand miles away, carried south on a glacier. Deehalter could picture a nervous band of Sacs dragging one of their number to the rock basin, bound or unconscious. Or would it have been a tribe from the pre-Columbian past? There was nothing in the mound to date it. Something had come from the cocoon of iron and been trapped again between layers of rock. Trapped until he and Kernes had freed it in a vapor which merged with the black tendrils of the dynamite.

As Deehalter neared the top of the ridge, he glanced sideways. The creature was a foot behind him and a foot to the left, its right leg poised to stride and its yard-long right arm poised to rip the farmer’s throat open. Deehalter slammed on the brakes, acting by reflex. It was the proper reflex, even though the jeep stalled. The beast’s claws swept where Deehalter’s head should have been, and its body belled and rebounded from the unyielding fender. For a moment, the thing sprawled backwards on the hillside; then it twisted upright, lizard-quick, and lunged.

Deehalter touched the muzzle of his Remington to the scaly ribs and blew the creature a dozen yards down the hill. The cartridge case sailed away in a high arc, the mouth of it eroded by the excessive pressures from the blocked muzzle.

And though Deehalter still had the part box in his pocket, that had been the last round in the weapon.

In stalling, Deehalter had flooded the jeep’s engine. He leaped out, winded already with fear, and topped the ridge with two long strides. The headlights were waning yellow behind him, where he could already hear the creature moving. The sky to the east was the color of blood. Deehalter ran for the mound as if its gentle contours could protect him. He tried to jump to its top, but his foot sank in the soft earth of the diggings. The big man windmilled forward onto his face in the grass beyond. His grip on the empty rifle had flayed his right knuckles against the ground. His twisted ankle gave a twinge; it might or might not bear his weight again.

Deehalter turned, trying to fumble another cartridge into the breech of the rifle. It was too late. Hissing like a cat in a lethal rage, the creature leaped delicately to the top of the mound.

It was even thinner than it had looked when flickering shadows had bulked its limbs. It had to be thin, of course, with only Kernes’ hundred and thirty pounds to clothe its frame. The curve of the mound made the creature’s height monstrous, even though its legs were poised to lunge and it carried its flat skull forward like that of a near-sighted mantis. The narrow lips drew apart in a momentary grin, gray-white and then crimson as the first rays of the sun touched the creature over the rim of the next hill.

For a moment the leer hung there. Deehalter, on his back, stared at it like a rabbit spitted by the gaze of a hunting serpent. Then the thing was gone and the fear was gone, and Deehalter’s practiced fingers slid a live round into the chamber of the ought-six.

“Wh-what’s the matter, Dee?” Kernes whimpered. He was pitiful in his nakedness, more pitiful in his stunned surprise at where he found himself. Kernes really hadn’t known what was happening, Deehalter realized. Perhaps Alice had begun to guess where her husband had been going in the night. That may have been why she had been so quick to run, before suspicion could become certainty.

“Dee, why’re you looking at me like that?” Kernes begged.

Deehalter stood. His ankle only throbbed. If his first bullet had killed the creature as it should have, he would have buried the body and claimed that something had dragged Kernes away. Perhaps he would have buried it here in the mound from which the creature had escaped to begin with. Alice and Dr. Jepson could testify to the cattle’s previous injuries, whatever they might surmise had caused them.

The same story would be sufficient now.

“Goodbye, you son of a bitch,” Deehalter said, and he raised his rifle. He fired point blank into the smaller man’s chest.

Kernes whuffed backwards as if a giant had kicked him. There was a look of amazement on his face and nothing more; but momentarily, something hung in the air between the dead man and the living, something as impalpable as the muzzle blast that rocked the hillside—and as real.

Deehalter’s flesh gave and for a startled second he/it knew why the Indians had buried their possessed brother alive, to trap the contagion with him in the rock instead of merely passing it on to raven and slay again. . . .

Then the sun was bright on Deehalter’s back, casting his shadow across the body of the man he had murdered. He recalled nothing of the moment just past.

Except that when he remembered the creature’s last red leer, he seemed to be seeing the image in a mirror.

Back | Next