Graveyard Rats by Robert E. Howard
A STEVE HARRISON STORY
First published in Thrilling Mystery magazine, February 1936
Chapter 1. The
Head From The
Chapter 3. The
Chapter 4. Rats
Chapter 5. The
SAUL WILKINSON awoke suddenly, and lay in the darkness with
beads of cold sweat on his hands and face. He shuddered at the memory of the
dream from which he had awakened.
But horrible dreams were nothing uncommon. Grisly nightmares had haunted
his sleep since early childhood. It was another fear that clutched his heart
with icy fingers—fear of the sound that had roused him. It had been a
furtive step—hands fumbling in the dark.
And now a small scurrying sounded in the room—a rat running back and
forth across the floor.
He groped under his pillow with trembling fingers. The house was still,
but imagination peopled its darkness with shapes of horror. But it was not
all imagination. A faint stir of air told him the door that gave on the broad
hallway was open. He knew he had closed that door before he went to bed. And
he knew it was not one of his brothers who had come so subtly to his
In that fear-tense, hate-haunted household, no man came by night to his
brother's room without first making himself known.
This was especially the case since an old feud had claimed the eldest
brother four days since—John Wilkinson, shot down in the streets of the
little hill-country town by Joel Middleton, who had escaped into the post oak
grown hills, swearing still greater vengeance against the Wilkinsons.
All this flashed through Saul's mind as he drew the revolver from under
As he slid out of bed, the creak of the springs brought his heart into his
throat, and he crouched there for a moment, holding his breath and straining
his eyes into the darkness.
Richard was sleeping upstairs, and so was Harrison, the city detective
Peter had brought out to hunt down Joel Middleton. Peter's room was on the
ground floor, but in another wing. A yell for help might awaken all three,
but it would also bring a hail of lead at him, if Joel Middleton were
crouching over there in the blackness.
Saul knew this was his fight, and must be fought out alone, in the
darkness he had always feared and hated. And all the time sounded that light,
scampering patter of tiny feet, racing up and down, up and down...
Crouching against the wall, cursing the pounding of his heart, Saul fought
to steady his quivering nerves. He was backed against the wall which formed
the partition between his room and the hall.
The windows were faint grey squares in the blackness, and he could dimly
make out objects of furniture in all except one side of the room. Joel
Middleton must be over there, crouching by the old fireplace, which was
invisible in the darkness.
But why was he waiting? And why was that accursed rat racing up and down
before the fireplace, as if in a frenzy of fear and greed? Just so Saul had
seen rats race up and down the floor of the meat-house, frantic to get at
flesh suspended out of reach.
Noiselessly, Saul moved along the wall toward the door. If a man was in
the room, he would presently be lined between himself and a window. But as he
glided along the wall like a night-shirted ghost, no ominous bulk grew out of
the darkness. He reached the door and closed it soundlessly, wincing at his
nearness to the unrelieved blackness of the hall outside.
But nothing happened. The only sounds were the wild beating of his heart,
the loud ticking of the old clock on the mantelpiece—the maddening
patter of the unseen rat. Saul clenched his teeth against the shrieking of
his tortured nerves. Even in his growing terror he found time to wonder
frantically why that rat ran up and down before the fireplace.
The tension became unbearable. The open door proved that Middleton, or
someone—or something—had come into that room. Why would
Middleton come save to kill? But why in God's name had he not struck already?
What was he waiting for?
Saul's nerve snapped suddenly. The darkness was strangling him and those
pattering rat-feet were red-hot hammers on his crumbling brain. He must have
light, even though that light brought hot lead ripping through him.
In stumbling haste he groped to the mantelpiece, fumbling for the lamp.
And he cried out—a choked, horrible croak that could not have carried
beyond his room. For his hand, groping in the dark on the mantel, had touched
the hair on a human scalp!
A furious squeal sounded in the darkness at his feet and a sharp pain
pierced his ankle as the rat attacked him, as if he were an intruder seeking
to rob it of some coveted object.
But Saul was hardly aware of the rodent as he kicked it away and reeled
back, his brain a whirling turmoil. Matches and candles were on the table,
and to it he lurched, his hands sweeping the dark and finding what he
He lighted a candle and turned, gun lifted in a shaking hand. There was no
living man in the room except himself. But his distended eyes focused
themselves on the mantelpiece—and the object on it.
He stood frozen, his brain at first refusing to register what his eyes
revealed. Then he croaked inhumanly and the gun crashed on the hearth as it
slipped through his numb fingers.
John Wilkinson was dead, with a bullet through his heart. It had been
three days since Saul had seen his body nailed into the crude coffin and
lowered into the grave in the old Wilkinson family graveyard. For three days
the hard clay soil had baked in the hot sun above the coffined form of John
Yet from the mantel John Wilkinson's face leered at him—white and
cold and dead.
It was no nightmare, no dream of madness. There, on the mantelpiece rested
John Wilkinson's severed head.
And before the fireplace, up and down, up and down, scampered a creature
with red eyes, that squeaked and squealed—a great grey rat, maddened by
its failure to reach the flesh its ghoulish hunger craved.
Saul Wilkinson began to laugh—horrible, soul-shaking shrieks that
mingled with the squealing of the grey ghoul. Saul's body rocked to and fro,
and the laughter turned to insane weeping, that gave way in turn to hideous
screams that echoed through the old house and brought the sleepers out of
They were the screams of a madman. The horror of what he had seen had
blasted Saul Wilkinson's reason like a blown-out candle flame.
IT WAS those screams which roused Steve Harrison, sleeping
in an upstairs chamber. Before he was fully awake he was on his way down the
unlighted stairs, pistol in one hand and flashlight in the other.
Down in the hallway he saw light streaming from under a closed door, and
made for it. But another was before him. Just as Harrison reached the
landing, he saw a figure rushing across the hall, and flashed his beam on
It was Peter Wilkinson, tall and gaunt, with a poker in his hand. He
yelled something incoherent, threw open the door and rushed in.
Harrison heard him exclaim: "Saul! What's the matter? What are you looking
at—" Then a terrible cry: "My God!"
The poker clanged on the floor, and then the screams of the maniac rose to
a crescendo of fury.
It was at this instant that Harrison reached the door and took in the
scene with one startled glance. He saw two men in nightshirts grappling in
the candlelight, while from the mantel a cold, dead, white face looked
blindly down on them, and a grey rat ran in mad circles about their feet.
Into that scene of horror and madness Harrison propelled his powerful,
thick-set body. Peter Wilkinson was in sore straits. He had dropped his poker
and now, with blood streaming from a wound in his head, he was vainly
striving to tear Saul's lean fingers from his throat.
The glare in Saul's eyes told Harrison the man was mad. Crooking one
massive arm about the maniac's neck, he tore him loose from his victim with
an exertion of sheer strength that not even the abnormal energy of insanity
The madman's stringy muscles were like steel wires under the detective's
hands, and Saul twisted about in his grasp, his teeth snapping, beastlike,
for Harrison's bull-throat. The detective shoved the clawing, frothing fury
away from him and smashed a fist to the madman's jaw. Saul crashed to the
floor and lay still, eyes glazed and limbs quivering.
Peter reeled back against a table, purple-faced and gagging.
"Get cords, quick!" snapped Harrison, heaving the limp figure off the
floor and letting it slump into a great arm-chair. "Tear that sheet in
strips. We've got to tie him up before he comes to. Hell's fire!"
The rat had made a ravening attack on the senseless man's bare feet.
Harrison kicked it away, but it squeaked furiously and came charging back
with ghoulish persistence. Harrison crushed it under his foot, cutting short
its maddened squeal.
Peter, gasping convulsively, thrust into the detective's hands the strips
he had torn from the sheet, and Harrison bound the limp limbs with
professional efficiency. In the midst of his task he looked up to see
Richard, the youngest brother, standing in the doorway, his face like
"Richard!" choked Peter. "Look! My God! John's head!"
"I see!" Richard licked his lips. "But why are you tying up Saul?"
"He's crazy," snapped Harrison. "Get me some whiskey, will you?"
As Richard reached for a bottle on a curtained shelf, booted feet hit the
porch outside, and a voice yelled: "Hey, there! Dick! What's wrong?"
"That's our neighbor, Jim Allison," muttered Peter.
He stepped to the door opposite the one that opened into the hall and
turned the key in the ancient lock. That door opened upon a side porch. A
tousle-headed man with his pants pulled on over his nightshirt came
"What's the matter?" he demanded. "I heard somebody hollerin', and run
over quick as I could. What you doin' to Saul—good God Almighty!"
He had seen the head on the mantel, and his face went ashen.
"Go get the marshal, Jim!" croaked Peter. "This is Joel Middleton's
Allison hurried out, stumbling as he peered back over his shoulder in
Harrison had managed to spill some liquor between Saul's livid lips. He
handed the bottle to Peter and stepped to the mantel. He touched the grisly
object, shivering slightly as he did so. His eyes narrowed suddenly.
"You think Middleton dug up your brother's grave and cut off his head?" he
"Who else?" Peter stared blankly at him.
"Saul's mad. Madmen do strange things. Maybe Saul did this."
"No! No!" exclaimed Peter, shuddering. "Saul hasn't left the house all
day. John's grave was undisturbed this morning, when I stopped by the old
graveyard on my way to the farm. Saul was sane when he went to bed. It was
seeing John's head that drove him mad. Joel Middleton has been here, to take
this horrible revenge!" He sprang up suddenly, shrilling, "My God, he may
still be hiding in the house somewhere!"
"We'll search it," snapped Harrison. "Richard, you stay here with Saul.
You might come with me, Peter."
In the hall outside the detective directed a beam of light on the heavy
front door. The key was turned in the massive lock. He turned and strode down
the hall, asking: "Which door is farthest from any sleeping chamber?"
"The back kitchen door!" Peter answered, and led the way. A few moments
later they were standing before it. It stood partly open, framing a crack of
"He must have come and gone this way," muttered Harrison. "You're sure
this door was locked?"
"I locked all outer doors myself," asserted Peter. "Look at those
scratches on the outer side! And there's the key lying on the floor
"Old-fashioned lock," grunted Harrison. "A man could work the key out with
a wire from the outer side and force the lock easily. And this is the logical
lock to force, because the noise of breaking it wouldn't likely be heard by
anybody in the house."
He stepped out onto the deep back porch. The broad back yard was without
trees or brushes, separated by a barbed-wire fence from a pasture lot, which
ran to a wood-lot thickly grown with post oaks, part of the woods which
hemmed in the village of Lost Knob on all sides.
Peter stared toward that woodland, a low, black rampart in the faint
starlight, and he shivered.
"He's out there, somewhere!" he whispered. "I never suspected he'd dare
strike at us in our own house. I brought you here to hunt him down. I never
thought we'd need you to protect us!"
Without replying, Harrison stepped down into the yard. Peter cringed back
from the starlight, and remained crouching at the edge of the porch.
Harrison crossed the narrow pasture and paused at the ancient rail fence
which separated it from the woods. They were black as only post oak thickets
No rustle of leaves, no scrape of branches betrayed a lurking presence. If
Joel Middleton had been there, he must have already sought refuge in the
rugged hills that surrounded Lost Knob.
Harrison turned back toward the house. He had arrived at Lost Knob late
the preceding evening. It was now somewhat past midnight. But the grisly news
was spreading, even in the dead of night.
The Wilkinson house stood at the western edge of the town, and the Allison
house was the only one within a hundred yards of it. But Harrison saw lights
springing up in distant windows.
Peter stood on the porch, head out-thrust on his long, buzzard-like
"Find anything?" he called anxiously.
"Tracks wouldn't show on this hard-baked ground," grunted the detective.
"Just what did you see when you ran into Saul's room?"
"Saul standing before the mantelboard, screaming with his mouth wide
open," answered Peter. "When I saw—what he saw, I must have cried out
and dropped the poker. Then Saul leaped on me like a wild beast."
"Was his door locked?"
"Closed, but not locked. The lock got broken accidentally a few days
"One more question: has Middleton ever been in this house before?"
"Not to my knowledge," replied Peter grimly. "Our families have hated each
other for twenty-five years. Joel's the last of his name."
Harrison re-entered the house. Allison had returned with the marshal,
McVey, a tall, taciturn man who plainly resented the detective's presence.
Men were gathering on the side porch and in the yard. They talked in low
mutters, except for Jim Allison, who was vociferous in his indignation.
"This finishes Joel Middleton!" he proclaimed loudly. "Some folks sided
with him when he killed John. I wonder what they think now? Diggin' up a dead
man and cuttin' his head off! That's Injun work! I reckon folks won't wait
for no jury to tell 'em what to do with Joel Middleton!"
"Better catch him before you start lynchin' him," grunted McVey. "Peter,
I'm takin' Saul to the county seat."
Peter nodded mutely. Saul was recovering consciousness, but the mad glaze
of his eyes was unaltered. Harrison spoke:
"Suppose we go to the Wilkinson graveyard and see what we can find? We
might be able to track Middleton from there."
"They brought you in here to do the job they didn't think I was good
enough to do," snarled McVey. "All right. Go ahead and do it—alone. I'm
takin' Saul to the county seat."
With the aid of his deputies he lifted the bound maniac and strode out.
Neither Peter nor Richard offered to accompany him. A tall, gangling man
stepped from among his fellows and awkwardly addressed Harrison:
"What the marshal does is his own business, but all of us here are ready
to help all we can, if you want to git a posse together and comb the
"Thanks, no." Harrison was unintentionally abrupt. "You can help me by all
clearing out, right now. I'll work this thing out alone, in my own way, as
the marshal suggested."
The men moved off at once, silent and resentful, and Jim Allison followed
them, after a moment's hesitation. When all had gone, Harrison closed the
door and turned to Peter.
"Will you take me to the graveyard?"
Peter shuddered. "Isn't it a terrible risk? Middleton has shown he'll stop
"Why should he?" Richard laughed savagely. His mouth was bitter, his eyes
alive with harsh mockery, and lines of suffering were carven deep in his
"We never stopped hounding him," said he. "John cheated him out of his
last bit of land—that's why Middleton killed him. For which you were
"You're talking wild!" exclaimed Peter.
Richard laughed bitterly. "You old hypocrite! We're all beasts of prey, we
Wilkinsons—like this thing!" He kicked the dead rat viciously. "We all
hated each other. You're glad Saul's crazy! You're glad John's dead. Only me
left now, and I have a heart disease. Oh, stare if you like! I'm no fool.
I've seen you poring over Aaron's lines in 'Titus Andronicus':
"Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves, and set them upright at
their dear friends' doors!"
"You're mad yourself!" Peter sprang up, livid.
"Oh, am I?" Richard had lashed himself almost into a frenzy. "What proof
have we that you didn't cut off John's head? You knew Saul was a neurotic,
that a shock like that might drive him mad! And you visited the graveyard
Peter's contorted face was a mask of fury. Then, with an effort of iron
control, he relaxed and said quietly: "You are over-wrought, Richard."
"Saul and John hated you," snarled Richard. "I know why. It was because
you wouldn't agree to leasing our farm on Wild River to that oil company. But
for your stubbornness we might all be wealthy."
"You know why I wouldn't lease," snapped Peter. "Drilling there would ruin
the agricultural value of the land—certain profit, not a risky gamble
"So you say," sneered Richard. "But suppose that's just a smoke screen?
Suppose you dream of being the sole, surviving heir, and becoming an oil
millionaire all by yourself, with no brothers to share—"
Harrison broke in: "Are we going the chew the rag all night?"
"No!" Peter turned his back on his brother. "I'll take you to the
graveyard. I'd rather face Joel Middleton in the night than listen to the
ravings of this lunatic any longer."
"I'm not going," snarled Richard. "Out there in the black night there's
too many chances for you to remove the remaining heir. I'll go and stay the
rest of the night with Jim Allison."
He opened the door and vanished in the darkness.
Peter picked up the head and wrapped it in a cloth, shivering lightly as
he did so.
"Did you notice how well preserved the face is?" he muttered. "One would
think that after three days—Come on. I'll take it and put it back in
the grave where it belongs."
"I'll kick this dead rat outdoors," Harrison began, turning—and then
stopped short. "The damned thing's gone!"
Peter Wilkinson paled as his eyes swept the empty floor.
"It was there!" he whispered. "It was dead. You smashed it! It couldn't
come to life and run away."
"We'll, what about it?" Harrison did not mean to waste time on this minor
Peter's eyes gleamed wearily in the candlelight.
"It was a graveyard rat!" he whispered. "I never saw one in an inhabited
house, in town, before! The Indians used to tell strange tales about them!
They said they were not beasts at all, but evil, cannibal demons, into which
entered the spirits of wicked, dead men at whose corpses they gnawed!"
"Hell's fire!" Harrison snorted, blowing out the candle. But his flesh
crawled. After all, a dead rat could not crawl away by itself.
CLOUDS had rolled across the stars. The air was hot and
stifling. The narrow, rutty road that wound westward into the hills was
atrocious. But Peter Wilkinson piloted his ancient Model T Ford skillfully,
and the village was quickly lost to sight behind them. They passed no more
houses. On each side the dense post oak thickets crowded close to the
Peter broke the silence suddenly:
"How did that rat come into our house? They overrun the woods along the
creeks, and swarm in every country graveyard in the hills. But I never saw
one in the village before. It must have followed Joel Middleton when he
brought the head—"
A lurch and a monotonous bumping brought a curse from Harrison. The car
came to a stop with a grind of brakes.
"Flat," muttered Peter. "Won't take me long to change tires. You watch the
woods. Joel Middleton might be hiding anywhere."
That seemed good advice. While Peter wrestled with rusty metal and
stubborn rubber, Harrison stood between him and the nearest clump of trees,
with his hand on his revolver. The night wind blew fitfully through the
leaves, and once he thought he caught the gleam of tiny eyes among the
"That's got it," announced Peter at last, turning to let down the jack.
"We've wasted enough time."
"Listen!" Harrison started, tensed. Off to the west had sounded a
sudden scream of pain or fear. Then there came the impact of racing feet on
the hard ground, the crackling of brush, as if someone fled blindly through
the bushes within a few hundred yards of the road. In an instant Harrison was
over the fence and running toward the sounds.
"Help! Help!" it was the voice of dire terror. "Almighty God! Help!"
"This way!" yelled Harrison, bursting into an open flat. The unseen
fugitive evidently altered his course in response, for the heavy footfalls
grew louder, and then there rang out a terrible shriek, and a figure
staggered from the bushes on the opposite side of the glade and fell
The dim starlight showed a vague writhing shape, with a darker figure on
its back. Harrison caught the glint of steel, heard the sound of a blow. He
threw up his gun and fired at a venture. At the crack of the shot, the darker
figure rolled free, leaped up and vanished in the bushes. Harrison ran on, a
queer chill crawling along his spine because of what he had seen in the flash
of the shot.
He crouched at the edge of the bushes and peered into them. The shadowy
figure had come and gone, leaving no trace except the man who lay groaning in
Harrison bent over him, snapping on his flashlight. He was an old man, a
wild, unkempt figure with matted white hair and beard. That beard was stained
with red now, and blood oozed from a deep stab in his back.
"Who did this?" demanded Harrison, seeing that it was useless to try to
stanch the flow of blood. The old man was dying. "Joel Middleton?"
"It couldn't have been!" Peter had followed the detective. "That's old
Joash Sullivan, a friend of Joel's. He's half crazy, but I've suspected that
he's been keeping in touch with Joel and giving his tips—"
"Joel Middleton," muttered the old man. "I'd been to find him, to tell the
news about John's head—"
"Where's Joel hiding?" demanded the detective.
Sullivan choked on a flow of blood, spat and shook his head.
"You'll never learn from me!" He directed his eyes on Peter with the eerie
glare of the dying. "Are you taking your brother's head back to his grave,
Peter Wilkinson? Be careful you don't find your own grave before this night's
done! Evil on all your name! The devil owns your souls and the graveyard
rats'll eat your flesh! The ghost of the dead walks the night!"
"What do you mean?" demanded Harrison. "Who stabbed you?"
"A dead man!" Sullivan was going fast. "As I come back from meetin' Joel
Middleton I met him. Wolf Hunter, the Tonkawa chief your grandpap murdered so
long ago, Peter Wilkinson! He chased me and knifed me. I saw him plain, in
the starlight—naked in his loin-clout and feathers and paint, just as I
saw him when I was a child, before your grandpap killed him!
"Wolf Hunter took your brother's head from the grave!" Sullivan's voice
was a ghastly whisper. "He's come back from Hell to fulfill the curse he laid
onto your grandpa when your grandpap shot him in the back, to get the land
his tribe claimed. Beware! His ghost walks the night! The graveyard rats are
his servants. The graveyard rats—"
Blood burst from his white-bearded lips and he sank back, dead.
Harrison rose somberly.
"Let him lie. We'll pick up his body as we go back to town. We're going on
to the graveyard."
"Dare we?" Peter's face was white. "A human I do not fear, not even Joel
Middleton, but a ghost—"
"Don't be a fool!" snorted Harrison. "Didn't you say the old man was half
"But what if Joel Middleton is hiding somewhere near—"
"I'll take care of him!" Harrison had an invincible confidence in his own
fighting ability. What he did not tell Peter, as they returned to the car,
was that he had had a glimpse of the slayer in the flash of his shot. The
memory of that glimpse still had the short hair prickling at the base of his
That figure had been naked but for a loin-cloth and moccasins and a
headdress of feathers.
"Who was Wolf Hunter?" he demanded as they drove on.
"A Tonkawa chief," muttered Peter. "He befriended my grandfather and was
later murdered by him, just as Joash said. They say his bones lie in the old
graveyard to this day."
Peter lapsed into silence, seemingly a prey of morbid broodings.
Some four miles from town the road wound past a dim clearing. That was the
Wilkinson graveyard. A rusty barbed-wire fence surrounded a cluster of graves
whose white headstones leaned at crazy angles. Weeds grew thick, straggling
over the low mounds.
The post oaks crowded close on all sides, and the road wound through them,
past the sagging gate. Across the tops of the trees, nearly half a mile to
the west, there was visible a shapeless bulk which Harrison knew was the roof
of a house.
"The old Wilkinson farmhouse," Peter answered in reply to his question. "I
was born there, and so were my brothers. Nobody's lived in it since we moved
to town, ten years ago."
Peter's nerves were taut. He glanced fearfully at the black woods around
him, and his hands trembled as he lighted a lantern he took from the car. He
winced as he picked up the round cloth-wrapped object that lay on the back
seat; perhaps he was visualizing the cold, white, stony face that cloth
As he climbed over the low gate and led the way between the weed-grown
mounds he muttered: "We're fools. If Joel Middleton's laying out there in the
woods he could pick us both off easy as shooting rabbits."
Harrison did not reply, and a moment later Peter halted and shone the
light on a mound which was bare of weeds. The surface was tumbled and
disturbed, and Peter exclaimed: "Look! I expected to find an open grave. Why
do you suppose he took the trouble of filling it again?"
"We'll see," grunted Harrison. "Are you game to open that grave?"
"I've seen my brother's head," answered Peter grimly. "I think I'm man
enough to look on his headless body without fainting. There are tools in the
tool-shed in the corner of the fence. I'll get them."
Returning presently with pick and shovel, he set the lighted lantern on
the ground, and the cloth-wrapped head near it. Peter was pale, and sweat
stood on his brow in thick drops. The lantern cast their shadows, grotesquely
distorted, across the weed-grown graves. The air was oppressive. There was an
occasional dull flicker of lightning along the dusky horizons.
"What's that?" Harrison paused, pick lifted. All about them sounded
rustlings and scurryings among the weeds. Beyond the circle of lantern light
clusters of tiny red beads glittered at him.
"Rats!" Peter hurled a stone and the beads vanished, though the rustlings
grew louder. "They swarm in this graveyard. I believe they'd devour a living
man, if they caught him helpless. Begone, you servants of Satan!"
Harrison took the shovel and began scooping out mounds of loose dirt.
"Ought not to be hard work," he grunted. "If he dug it out today or early
tonight, it'll be loose all the way down—"
He stopped short, with his shovel jammed hard against the dirt, and a
prickling in the short hairs at the nape of his neck. In the tense silence he
heard the graveyard rats running through the grass.
"What's the matter?" A new pallor greyed Peter's face.
"I've hit solid ground," said Harrison slowly. "In three days, this clayey
soil bakes hard as a brick. But if Middleton or anybody else had opened this
grave and refilled it today, the soil would be loose all the way down. It's
not. Below the first few inches it's packed and baked hard! The top has been
scratched, but the grave has never been opened since it was first filled,
three days ago!"
Peter staggered with an inhuman cry.
"Then it's true!" he screamed. "Wolf Hunter has come back! He
reached up from Hell and took John's head without opening the grave! He sent
his familiar devil into our house in the form of a rat! A ghost-rat that
could not be killed! Hands off, curse you!"
For Harrison caught at him, growling: "Pull yourself together, Peter!"
But Peter struck his arm aside and tore free. He turned and ran—not
toward the car parked outside the graveyard, but toward the opposite fence.
He scrambled across the rusty wires with a ripping of cloth and vanished in
the woods, heedless of Harrison's shouts.
"Hell!" Harrison pulled up, and swore fervently. Where but in the black-
hill country could such things happen? Angrily he picked up the tools and
tore into the close-packed clay, baked by a blazing sun into almost iron
Sweat rolled from him in streams, and he grunted and swore, but persevered
with all the power of his massive muscles. He meant to prove or disprove a
suspicion growing in his mind—a suspicion that the body of John
Wilkinson had never been placed in that grave.
The lightning flashed oftener and closer, and a low mutter of thunder
began in the west. An occasional gust of wind made the lantern flicker, and
as the mound beside the grave grew higher, and the man digging there sank
lower and lower in the earth, the rustling in the grass grew louder and the
red beads began to glint in the weeds. Harrison heard the eerie gnashings of
tiny teeth all about him, and swore at the memory of grisly legends,
whispered by the Negroes of his boyhood region about the graveyard rats.
The grave was not deep. No Wilkinson would waste much labor on the dead.
At last the rude coffin lay uncovered before him. With the point of the pick
he pried up one corner of the lid, and held the lantern close. A startled
oath escaped his lips. The coffin was not empty. It held a huddled, headless
Harrison climbed out of the grave, his mind racing, fitting together
pieces of the puzzle. The stray bits snapped into place, forming a pattern,
dim and yet incomplete, but taking shape. He looked for the cloth-wrapped
head, and got a frightful shock.
The head was gone!
For an instant Harrison felt cold sweat clammy on his hands. Then he heard
a clamorous squeaking, the gnashing of tiny fangs.
He caught up the lantern and shone the light about. In its reflection he
saw a white blotch on the grass near a straggling clump of bushes that had
invaded the clearing. It was the cloth in which the head had been wrapped.
Beyond that a black, squirming mound heaved and tumbled with nauseous
With an oath of horror he leaped forward, striking and kicking. The
graveyard rats abandoned the head with rasping squeaks, scattering before him
like darting black shadows. And Harrison shuddered. It was no face that
stared up at him in the lantern light, but a white, grinning skull, to which
clung only shreds of gnawed flesh.
While the detective burrowed into John Wilkinson's grave, the graveyard
rats had torn the flesh from John Wilkinson's head.
Harrison stooped and picked up the hideous thing, now triply hideous. He
wrapped it in the cloth, and as he straightened, something like fright took
hold of him.
He was ringed in on all sides by a solid circle of gleaming red sparks
that shone from the grass. Held back by their fear, the graveyard rats
surrounded him, squealing their hate.
Demons, the Negroes called them, and in that moment Harrison was ready to
They gave back before him as he turned toward the grave, and he did not
see the dark figure that slunk from the bushes behind him. The thunder boomed
out, drowning even the squeaking of the rats, but he heard the swift footfall
behind him an instant before the blow was struck.
He whirled, drawing his gun, dropping the head, but just as he whirled,
something like a louder clap of thunder exploded in his head, with a shower
of sparks before his eyes.
As he reeled backward he fired blindly, and cried out as the flash showed
him a horrific, half-naked, painted, feathered figure, crouching with a
tomahawk uplifted—the open grave was behind Harrison as he fell.
Down into the grave he toppled, and his head struck the edge of the coffin
with a sickening impact. His powerful body went limp; and like darting
shadows, from every side raced the graveyard rats, hurling themselves into
the grave in a frenzy of hunger and blood-lust.
IT SEEMED to Harrison's stunned brain that he lay in
blackness on the darkened floors of Hell, a blackness lit by darts of flame
from the eternal fires. The triumphant shrieking of demons was in his ears as
they stabbed him with red-hot skewers.
He saw them, now—dancing monstrosities with pointed noses, twitching
ears, red eyes and gleaming teeth—a sharp pain knifed through his
And suddenly the mists cleared. He lay, not on the floor of Hell, but on a
coffin in the bottom of a grave; the fires were lightning flashes from the
black sky; and the demons were rats that swarmed over him, slashing with
Harrison yelled and heaved convulsively, and at his movement the rats gave
back in alarm. But they did not leave the grave; they massed solidly along
the walls, their eyes glittering redly.
Harrison knew he could have been senseless only a few seconds. Otherwise,
these grey ghouls would have already stripped the living flesh from his bones
—as they had ripped the dead flesh from the head of the man on whose
coffin he lay.
Already his body was stinging in a score of places, and his clothing was
damp with his own blood.
Cursing, he started to rise—and a chill of panic shot through him!
Falling, his left arm had been jammed into the partly-open coffin, and the
weight of his body on the lid clamped his hand fast. Harrison fought down a
mad wave of terror.
He would not withdraw his hand unless he could lift his body from the
coffin lid—and the imprisonment of his hand held him prostrate
In a murdered man's grave, his hand locked in the coffin of a headless
corpse, with a thousand grey ghoul-rats ready to tear the flesh from his
As if sensing his helplessness, the rats swarmed upon him. Harrison fought
for his life, like a man in a nightmare. He kicked, he yelled, he cursed, he
smote them with the heavy six-shooter he still clutched in his hand.
Their fangs tore at him, ripping cloth and flesh, their acrid scent
nauseated him; they almost covered him with their squirming, writhing bodies.
He beat them back, smashed and crushed them with blows of his six-shooter
The living cannibals fell on their dead brothers. In desperation he
twisted half-over and jammed the muzzle of his gun against the coffin
At the flash of fire and the deafening report, the rats scurried in all
Again and again, he pulled the trigger until the gun was empty. The heavy
slugs crashed through the lid, splitting off a great sliver from the edge.
Harrison drew his bruised hand from the aperture.
Gagging and shaking, he clambered out of the grave and rose groggily to
his feet. Blood was clotted in his hair from the gash the ghostly hatchet had
made in his scalp, and blood trickled from a score of tooth-wounds in his
flesh. Lightning played constantly, but the lantern was still shining. But it
was not on the ground.
It seemed to be suspended in mid-air—and then he was aware that it
was held in the hand of a man—a tall man in a black slicker, whose eyes
burned dangerously under his broad hat-brim. In his other hand a black pistol
muzzle menaced the detective's midriff.
"You must be that damn' low-country law Pete Wilkinson brung up here to
run me down!" growled this man.
"Then you're Joel Middleton!" grunted Harrison.
"Sure I am!" snarled the outlaw. "Where's Pete, the old devil?"
"He got scared and ran off."
"Crazy, like Saul, maybe," sneered Middleton. "Well, you tell him I been
savin' a slug for his ugly mug a long time. And one for Dick, too."
"Why did you come here?" demanded Harrison.
"I heard shootin'. I got here just as you was climbin' out of the grave.
What's the matter with you? Who was it that broke your head?"
"I don't know his name," answered Harrison, caressing his aching head.
"Well, it don't make no difference to me. But I want to tell you that I
didn't cut John's head off. I killed him because he needed it." The outlaw
swore and spat. "But I didn't do that other!"
"I know you didn't," Harrison answered.
"Eh?" The outlaw was obviously startled.
"Do you know which rooms the Wilkinsons sleep in, in their house in
"Naw," snorted Middleton. "Never was in their house in my life."
"I thought not. Whoever put John's head on Saul's mantel knew. The back
kitchen door was the only one where the lock could have been forced without
waking somebody up. The lock on Saul's door was broken. You couldn't have
known those things. It looked like an inside job from the start. The lock was
forced to make it look like an outside job.
"Richard spilled some stuff that cinched my belief that it was Peter. I
decided to bring him out to the graveyard and see if his nerve would stand up
under an accusation across his brother's open coffin. But I hit hard-packed
soil and knew the grave hadn't been opened. It gave me a turn and I blurted
out what I'd found. But it's simple, after all.
"Peter wanted to get rid of his brothers. When you killed John, that
suggested a way to dispose of Saul. John's body stood in its coffin in the
Wilkinsons' parlor until it was placed in the grave the next day. No death
watch was kept. It was easy for Peter to go into the parlor while his
brothers slept, pry up the coffin lid and cut off John's head. He put it on
ice somewhere to preserve it. When I touched it I found it was nearly
"No one knew what had happened, because the coffin was not opened again.
John was an atheist, and there was the briefest sort of ceremony. The coffin
was not opened for his friends to take a last look, as is the usual custom.
Then tonight the head was placed in Saul's room. It drove him raving mad.
"I don't know why Peter waited until tonight, or why he called me into the
case. He must be partly insane himself. I don't think he meant to kill me
when we drove out here tonight. But when he discovered I knew the grave
hadn't been opened tonight, he saw the game was up. I ought to have been
smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but I was so sure that Peter had opened
the grave to get the head, that when I found it hadn't been opened, I
spoke involuntarily, without stopping to think of the other alternative.
Peter pretended a panic and ran off. Later he sent back his partner to kill
"Who's he?" demanded Middleton.
"How should I know? Some fellow who looks like an Indian!"
"That old yarn about a Tonkawa ghost has went to your brain!" scoffed
"I didn't say it was a ghost," said Harrison, nettled. "It was real enough
to kill your friend Joash Sullivan!"
"What?" yelled Middleton. "Joash killed? Who done it?"
"The Tonkawa ghost, whoever he is. The body is lying about a mile back,
beside the road, amongst the thickets, if you don't believe me."
Middleton ripped out a terrible oath.
"By God, I'll kill somebody for that! Stay where you are! I ain't goin' to
shoot no unarmed man, but if you try to run me down I'll kill you sure as
Hell. So keep off my trail. I'm goin', and don't you try to follow me!"
The next instant Middleton had dashed the lantern to the ground where it
went out with a clatter of breaking glass.
Harrison blinked in the sudden darkness that followed, and the next
lightning flash showed him standing alone in the ancient graveyard.
The outlaw was gone.
CURSING, Harrison groped on the ground, lit by the lightning
flashes. He found the broken lantern, and he found something else.
Rain drops splashed against his face as he started toward the gate. One
instant he stumbled in velvet blackness, the next the tombstones shone white
in the dazzling glare. Harrison's head ached frightfully. Only chance and a
tough skull had saved his life. The would-be killer must have thought the
blow was fatal and fled, taking John Wilkinson's head for what grisly purpose
there was no knowing. But the head was gone.
Harrison winced at the thought of the rain filling the open grave, but he
had neither the strength nor the inclination to shovel the dirt back in it.
To remain in that dark graveyard might well be death. The slayer might
Harrison looked back as he climbed the fence. The rain had disturbed the
rats; the weeds were alive with scampering, flame-eyed shadows. With a
shudder, Harrison made his way to the flivver. He climbed in, found his
flashlight and reloaded his revolver.
The rain grew in volume. Soon the rutty road to Lost Knob would be a
welter of mud. In his condition he did not feel able to the task of driving
back through the storm over that abominable road. But it could not be long
until dawn. The old farmhouse would afford him a refuge until daylight.
The rain came down in sheets, soaking him, dimming the already uncertain
lights as he drove along the road, splashing noisily through the mud-puddles.
Wind ripped through the post oaks. Once he grunted and batted his eyes. He
could have sworn that a flash of lightning had fleetingly revealed a painted,
naked, feathered figure gliding among the trees!
The road wound up a thickly wooded eminence, rising close to the bank of a
muddy creek. On the summit the old house squatted. Weeds and low bushes
straggled from the surrounding woods up to the sagging porch. He parked the
car as close to the house as he could get it, and climbed out, struggling
with the wind and rain.
He expected to have to blow the lock off the door with his gun, but it
opened under his fingers. He stumbled into a musty-smelling room, weirdly lit
by the flickering of the lightning through the cracks of the shutters.
His flashlight revealed a rude bunk built against a side wall, a heavy
hand-hewn table, a heap of rags in a corner. From this pile of rags black
furtive shadows darted in all directions.
Rats! Rats again!
Could he never escape them?
He closed the door and lit the lantern, placing it on the table. The
broken chimney caused the flame to dance and flicker, but not enough wind
found its way into the room to blow it out. Three doors, leading into the
interior of the house, were closed. The floor and walls were pitted with
holes gnawed by the rats.
Tiny red eyes glared at him from the apertures.
Harrison sat down on the bunk, flashlight and pistol on his lap. He
expected to fight for his life before day broke. Peter Wilkinson was out
there in the storm somewhere, with a heart full of murder, and either allied
to him or working separately—in either case an enemy to the detective
—was that mysterious painted figure.
And that figure was Death, whether living masquerader or Indian ghost. In
any event, the shutters would protect him from a shot from the dark, and to
get at him his enemies would have to come into the lighted room where he
would have an even chance—which was all the big detective had ever
To get his mind off the ghoulish red eyes glaring at him from the floor,
Harrison brought out the object he had found lying near the broken lantern,
where the slayer must have dropped it.
It was a smooth oval of flint, made fast to a handle with rawhide thongs
—the Indian tomahawk of an elder generation. And Harrison's eyes
narrowed suddenly; there was blood on the flint, and some of it was his own.
But on the other point of the oval there was more blood, dark and crusted,
with strands of hair lighter than his, clinging to the clotted point.
Joash Sullivan's blood? No. The old man had been knifed. But someone else
had died that night. The darkness had hidden another grim deed...
Black shadows were stealing across the floor. The rats were coming back
—ghoulish shapes, creeping from their holes, converging on the heap of
rags in the far corner—a tattered carpet, Harrison now saw, rolled in a
long compact heap. Why should the rats leap upon that rag? Why should they
race up and down along it, squealing and biting at the fabric?
There was something hideously suggestive about its contour—a shape
that grew more definite and ghastly as he looked.
The rats scattered, squeaking, as Harrison sprang across the room. He tore
away the carpet—and looked down on the corpse of Peter Wilkinson.
The back of the head had been crushed. The white face was twisted in a
leer of awful terror.
For an instant Harrison's brain reeled with the ghastly possibilities his
discovery summoned up. Then he took a firm grasp on himself, fought off the
whispering potency of the dark, howling night, the thrashing wet black woods
and the abysmal aura of the ancient hills, and recognized the only sane
solution of the riddle.
Somberly he looked down on the dead man. Peter Wilkinson's fright had been
genuine, after all. In his blind panic he had reverted to the habits of his
boyhood and fled toward his old home—and met death instead of
Harrison started convulsively as a weird sound smote his ears above the
roar of the storm—the wailing horror of an Indian war-whoop. The killer
was upon him!
Harrison sprang to a shuttered window, peered through a crack, waiting for
a flash of lightning. When it came he fired through the window at a feathered
head he saw peering around a tree close to the car.
In the darkness that followed the flash he crouched, waiting—there
came another white glare—he grunted explosively but did not fire. The
head was still there, and he got a better look at it. The lightning shone
weirdly white upon it.
It was John Wilkinson's fleshless skull, clad in a feathered headdress and
bound in place—and it was the bait of a trap.
Harrison wheeled and sprang toward the lantern on the table. That grisly
ruse had been to draw his attention to the front of the house while the
killer slunk upon him through the rear of the building! The rats squealed and
scattered. Even as Harrison whirled an inner door began to open. He smashed a
heavy slug through the panels, heard a groan and the sound of a falling body,
and then, just as he reached a hand to extinguish the lantern, the world
crashed over his head.
A blinding burst of lightning, a deafening clap of thunder, and the
ancient house staggered from gables to foundations! Blue fire crackled from
the ceiling and ran down the walls and over the floor. One livid tongue just
flicked the detective's shin in passing.
It was like the impact of a sledgehammer. There was in instant of
blindness and numb agony, and Harrison found himself sprawling, half-stunned
on the floor. The lantern lay extinguished beside the overturned table, but
the room was filled with a lurid light.
He realized that a bolt of lightning had struck the house, and that the
upper story was ablaze. He hauled himself to his feet, looking for his gun.
It lay halfway across the room, and as he started toward it, the bullet-split
door swung open. Harrison stopped dead in his tracks.
Through the door limped a man naked but for a loin-cloth and moccasins on
his feet. A revolver in his hand menaced the detective. Blood oozing from a
wound in his thigh mingled with the paint with which he had smeared
"So it was you who wanted to be the oil millionaire, Richard!" said
The other laughed savagely. "Aye, and I will be! And no cursed brothers to
share with—brothers I always hated, damn them! Don't move! You nearly
got me when you shot through the door. I'm taking no chances with you! Before
I send you to Hell, I'll tell you everything.
"As soon as you and Peter started for the graveyard, I realized my mistake
in merely scratching the top of the grave—knew you'd hit hard clay and
know the grave hadn't been opened. I knew then I'd have to kill you, as well
as Peter. I took the rat you mashed when neither of you were looking, so its
disappearance would play on Peter's superstitions.
"I rode to the graveyard through the woods, on a fast horse. The Indian
disguise was one I thought up long ago. What with that rotten road, and the
flat that delayed you, I got to the graveyard before you and Peter did. On
the way, though, I dismounted and stopped to kill that old fool Joash
Sullivan. I was afraid he might see and recognize me.
"I was watching when you dug into the grave. When Peter got panicky and
ran through the woods I chased him, killed him, and brought his body here to
the old house. Then I went back after you. I intended bringing your body
here, or rather your bones, after the rats finished you, as I thought they
would. Then I heard Joel Middleton coming and had to run for it—I don't
care to meet that gun-fighting devil anywhere!
"I was going to burn this house with both your bodies in it. People would
think, when they found the bones in the ashes, that Middleton killed you both
and burnt the house! And now you play right into my hands by coming here!
Lightning has struck the house and it's burning! Oh, the gods fight for me
A light of unholy madness played in Richard's eyes, but the pistol muzzle
was steady, as Harrison stood clenching his great fists helplessly.
"You'll lie here with that fool Peter!" raved Richard. "With a bullet
through your head, until your bones are burnt to such a crisp that nobody can
tell how you died! Joel Middleton will be shot down by some posse without a
chance to talk. Saul will rave out his days in a madhouse! And I, who will be
safely sleeping in my house in town before sun-up, will live out my allotted
years in wealth and honor, never suspected—never—"
He was sighting along the black barrel, eyes blazing, teeth bared like the
fangs of a wolf between painted lips—his finger was curling on the
Harrison crouched tensely, desperately, poising the hurl himself with bare
hands at the killer and try to pit his naked strength against hot lead
spitting from that black muzzle—then—
The door crashed inward behind him and the lurid glare framed a tall
figure in a dripping slicker.
An incoherent yell rang to the roof and the gun in the outlaw's hand
roared. Again, and again, and yet again it crashed, filling the room with
smoke and thunder, and the painted figure jerked to the impact of the tearing
Through the smoke Harrison saw Richard Wilkinson toppling—but he too
was firing as he fell. Flames burst through the ceiling, and by their
brighter glare Harrison saw a painted figure writhing on the floor, a taller
figure wavering in the doorway. Richard was screaming in agony.
Middleton threw his empty gun at Harrison's feet.
"Heard the shootin' and come," he croaked. "Reckon that settles the feud
for good!" He toppled, and Harrison caught him in his arms, a lifeless
Richard's screams rose to an unbearable pitch. The rats were swarming from
their holes. Blood streaming across the floor had dripped into their holes,
maddening them. Now they burst forth in a ravening horde that heeded not
cries, or movement, or the devouring flames, but only their own fiendish
In a grey-black wave they swept over the dead man and the dying man.
Peter's white face vanished under that wave. Richard's screaming grew thick
and muffled. He writhed, half covered by grey, tearing figures who sucked at
his gushing blood, tore at his flesh.
Harrison retreated through the door, carrying the dead outlaw. Joel
Middleton, outlaw and killer, yet deserved a better fate than was befalling
To save that ghoul, Harrison would not have lifted a finger, had it been
in his power.
It was not. The graveyard rats had claimed their own. Out in the yard,
Harrison let his burden fall limply. Above the roar of the flames still rose
those awful, smothered cries.
Through the blazing doorway he had a glimpse of a horror, a gory figure
rearing upright, swaying, enveloped by a hundred clinging, tearing shapes. He
glimpsed a face that was not a face at all, but a blind, bloody skull-mask.
Then the awful scene was blotted out as the flaming roof fell with a
thundering, ear-rending crash.
Sparks showered against the sky, the flames rose as the walls fell in, and
Harrison staggered away, dragging the dead man, as a storm-wrapped dawn came
haggardly over the oak-clad ridges.