Astounding Stories of Super-Science April 1930 – Anthony Pelcher

IT was a wicked night, the night I met the man who had died. A bitter, heart-numbing night of weird, shrieking wind and flying snow. A few black hours I will never forget. “Well, Jerry, lad!” my mother said to me as I pushed back from the table and started for my sheepskin coat and the lantern in the corner of the room. “Surely you’re not going out a night like this? Goodness gracious, Jerry, it’s not fit!” “Can’t help it, Mother,” I replied. “Got to go. You’ve never seen me miss a Saturday night yet, have you now?” “No. But then I’ve never seen a night like this for years either. Jerry, I’m really afraid. You may freeze before you even get as far as—” “Ah, come now, Mother,” I argued. “They’d guy me to death if I didn’t sit in with the gang to-night. They’d chaff me because it was too cold for me to get out. But I’m no pampered sissy, you know, and I want to see—” “Yes,” she retorted bitingly, “I know. You want to go and bask in that elegant company. Our stove’s just as good as the one down at that dirty old store,” continued my persistent and anxious parent, “and it’s certainly not very flattering to think that you leave us on a night like this to—Who’ll be there, anyway?” “Oh, the usual five or six I suppose,” I answered as I adjusted the wick of my lantern, hearing as I did the snarl and cut of the wind through the evergreens in the yard.

“That black-whiskered sphinx, Hammersly, will he be there?” “Yes, he’ll be there, I’m pretty sure.” “Hm-m!” she exclaimed, her expression now carrying all the contempt for my judgment and taste she intended it should. “Button your coat up good around your neck, then, if you must go to see your precious Hammersly and the rest of them. Have you ever heard that man say anything yet? Does he speak at all, Jerry?” Then her gentle mind, not at all accustomed to hard thoughts or contemptuous remarks, quickly changed. “Funny thing about that fellow,” she mused. “He’s got something on his mind. Don’t you think so, Jerry?” “Y-es, yes I do. And I’ve often wondered what it could be. He certainly’s a queer stick. Got to admit that.

Always brooding. Good fellow all right, and, for a ‘sphinx’ as you call him, likable. But I wonder what is eating him?” “What do you suppose it could be, Jerry boy?” questioned Mother following me to the door, the woman of her now completely forgetting her recent criticisms and, perhaps, the rough night her son was about to step into. “Do you suppose the poor chap has a—a—broken heart, or something like that? A girl somewhere who jilted him? Or maybe he loves someone he has no right to!” she finished excitedly, the plates in her hand rattling. “Maybe it’s worse than that,” I ventured. “P’r’aps—I’ve no right to say it—but p’r’aps, and I’ve often thought it, there’s a killing he wants to forget, and can’t!” I HEARD my mother’s sharp little “Oh!” as I shut the door behind me and the warmth and comfort of the room away. Outside it was worse than the whistle of the wind through the trees had led me to expect. Black as pitch it was, and as cold as blazes. For the first moment or two, though, I liked the feel of the challenge of the night and the racing elements, was even a little glad I had added to the dare of the blackness the thought of Hammersly and his “killing.” But I had not gone far before I was wishing I did not have to save my face by putting in an appearance at the store that night.

Every Saturday night, with the cows comfortable in their warm barn, and my own supper over, I was in the habit of taking my place on the keg or box behind the red-hot stove in Pruett’s store. To-night all the snow was being hurled clear of the fields to block the roads full between the old, zigzag fences. The wind met me in great pushing gusts, and while it flung itself at me I would hang against it, snow to my knees, until the blow had gone along, when I could plunge forward again. I was glad when I saw the lights of the store, glad when I was inside. They met me with mock applause for my pluck in facing the night, but for all their sham flattery I was pleased I had come, proud, I must admit, that I had been able to plough my heavy way through the drifts to reach them. I saw at a glance that my friends were all there, and I saw too that there was a strange man present. A VERY tall man he was, gaunt and awkward as he leaned into the angle of the two counters, his back to a dusty show-case. He attracted my attention at once. Not merely because he appeared so long and pointed and skinny, but because, of all ridiculous things in that frozen country, he wore a hard derby hat! If he had not been such a queer character it would have been laughable, but as it was it was —creepy. For the man beneath that hard hat was about as queer a looking character as I have ever seen.

I supposed he was a visitor at the store, or a friend of one of my friends, and that in a little while I would be introduced. But I was not. I took my place in behind the stove, feeling at once, though I am far from being unsociable usually, that the man was an intruder and would spoil the evening. But despite his cold, dampening presence we were soon at it, hammer and tongs, discussing the things that are discussed behind hospitable stoves in country stores on bad nights. But I could never lose sight of the fact that the stranger standing there, silent as the grave, was, to say the least, a queer one. Before long I was sure he was no friend or guest of anyone there, and that he not only cast a pall over me but over all of us. I did not like it, nor did I like him. Perhaps it would have been just as well after all, I thought, had I heeded my mother and stayed home. Jed Counsell was the one who, innocently enough, started the thing that changed the evening, that had begun so badly, into a nightmare. “Jerry,” he said, leaning across to me, “thinkin’ of you s’afternoon.

Readin’ an article about reincarnation. Remember we were arguin’ it last week? Well, this guy, whoever he was I’ve forgot, believes in it. Says it’s so. That people do come back.” With this opening shot Jed sat back to await my answer. I liked these arguments and I liked to bear my share in them, but now, instead of immediately answering the challenge, I looked around to see if any other of our circle were going to answer Jed. Then, deciding it was up to me, I shrugged off the strange feeling the man in the corner had cast over me, and prepared to view my opinions. “That’s just that fellow’s belief, Jed,” I said. “And just as he’s got his so have I mine. And on this subject at least I claim my opinion is as good as anybody’s.

” I was just getting nicely started, and a little forgetting my distaste for the man in the corner, when the fellow himself interrupted. He left his leaning place, and came creaking across the floor to our circle around the store. I say he came “creaking” for as he came he did creak. “Shoes,” I naturally, almost unconsciously decided, though the crazy notion was in my mind that the cracking I heard did sound like bones and joints and sinews badly in need of oil. The stranger sat his groaning self down among us, on a board lying across a nail keg and an old chair. Only from the corner of my eye did I see his movement, being friendly enough, despite my dislike, not to allow too marked notice of his attempt to be sociable seem inhospitable on my part. I was about to start again with my argument when Seth Spears, sitting closest to the newcomer, deliberately got up from the bench and went to the counter, telling Pruett as he went that he had to have some sugar. It was all a farce, a pretext, I knew. I’ve known Seth for years and had never known him before to take upon himself the buying for his wife’s kitchen. Seth simply would not sit beside the man.

AT that I could keep my eyes from the stranger no longer, and the next moment I felt my heart turn over within me, then lie still. I have seen “walking skeletons” in circuses, but never such a man as the one who was then sitting at my right hand. Those side-show men were just lean in comparison to the fellow who had invaded our Saturday night club. His thighs and his legs and his knees, sticking sharply into his trousers, looked like pieces of inch board. His shoulders and his chest seemed as flat and as sharp as his legs. The sight of the man shocked me. I sprang to my feet thoroughly frightened. I could not see much of his face, sitting there in the dark as he was with his back to the yellow light, but I could make out enough of it to know that it was in keeping with the rest of him. In a moment or two, realizing my childishness, I had fought down my fear and, pretending that a scorching of my leg had caused my hurried movement, I sat down again. None of the others said a word, each waiting for me to continue and to break the embarrassing silence.

Hammersly, blackwhiskered, the “sphinx” as my mother had called him, watched me closely. Hating myself not a little bit for actually being the sissy I had boasted I was not, I spoke hurriedly, loudly, to cover my confusion. “No sir, Jed!” I said, taking up my argument. “When a man’s dead, he’s dead! There’s no bringing him back like that highbrow claimed. The old heart may be only hitting about once in every hundred times, and if they catch it right at the last stroke they may bring it back then, but once she’s stopped, Jed, she’s stopped for good. Once the pulse has gone, and life has flickered out, it’s out. And it doesn’t come back in any form at all, not in this world!” I was glad when I had said it, thereby asserting myself and downing my foolish fear of the man whose eyes I felt burning into me. I did not turn to look at him but all the while I felt his gimlety eyes digging into my brain. Then he spoke. And though he sat right next to me his voice sounded like a moan from afar off.

It was the first time we had heard this thing that once may have been a voice and that now sounded like a groan from a closely nailed coffin. He reached a hand toward my knee to enforce his words, but I jerked away. “So you don’t believe a man can come back from the grave, eh?” he grated. “Believe that once a man’s heart is stilled it’s stopped for good, eh? Well, you’re all wrong, sonny. All wrong! You believe these things. I know them!”

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