Page Created 2-20-02

By R. L. Fanthorpe
© R. Lionel Fanthorpe

"It staggered from the mountain cave . . . savage . . . hideous . . . part-man, part-beast."

THE village of Colsey Bridge in Cumberland is a delightful little place; grey stone cottages cluster along either side of a steep river valley. Guant, grey cliffs rise behind them like the protecting arms of Mother Nature herself. Over it all broods a sense of peace and pleasantness----at least so it seems to the passing tourist, the casual outsider, the holiday maker. There is one inn and one church. Colsey Bridge is the kind of village that many of us dream about and that few of us are ever able to find in real life. But it is well worth looking for, from an aesthetic point of view.
        Old Matty was the Colsey Bridge postman, and in an area like that, being a postman was something that was far easier said than done.
        A mail man's life is not easy in any weather, in any town, or in any city. But the country postman, gets rather more than his fair share of exercise. For those who like it the job is ideal, it is a job for a man with a sense of duty and vocation. Such a man was old Matty.
        To him the sacred slogan, "Her Majesty's mail must go through" was almost a religion. Rain, sleet, hail, fog, ice, none of these things deterred the old veteran. He had been known to cross moors and fells with snow shoes rather than allow the mail to accumulate. Being generous-hearted by nature, and of that kind of country breed which is not overly burdened by restrictions, and not overly impressed by red-tape and officialdom, Matty considered it necessary to take milk, bread, and other vital provisions when the village was cut off by severe wintry weather, and he would see to it that these things found a place among his mail.
        He was an early riser, earlier by far than his specified duty time and on the morning when our story opens he had risen even earlier than usual.
        It was a fair spring morning, bright, clear, dawn sunlight shimmered like fingers of a dainty maiden who yawned and awakened from sleep across the tops of the mountains. The great Cumberland hills, the peaks and the crags, that wonderful area . . . thought the postman. Old Matty was looking at the sunrise as he mounted his sturdy, though somewhat ancient bicycle, and pedaled his old red bedstead-boneshaker along the small granite-surfaced road, delivered the first letter to a shepherd's hut, and set off, leaving his bicycle behind him, with his mail sack across his shoulder, to take the next letter to another shepherd's hut, the highest in the area.
        He reached it after a long, stiff climb and knocked. His only answer was a pathetic whining sound. Old Matty had not been a Cumberland man all his life without knowing the meaning of a dog's cry of distress and despair. He knew the shepherd well, and opened the door swiftly. A huge Old English sheep dog bounded towards him, wagging its tail madly, and licking his hand feverishly.
        Old Matty patted the animal's head and moved into the dim interior of the hut. He struck a match and lit the old fashioned paraffin lamp. There was a black patch on the stone work above it, made by many years of ascending smoke. He adjusted the wick a trifle and peered round the interior of the hut.
        Why had the dog cried out in distress, there had to be a reason. . . .? His circling gaze suddenly rested on the reason. It was the shepherd, John Bollinger, and John Bollinger was dead. He lay half-in and half-out of his shepherd's cot; one arm trailed on the floor; there was blood all around.
        Just for a second a wild thought crossed the postman's mind, surely that lovable Old English sheep dog couldn't have savaged his master. But no! The pity and distress in those canine eyes ruled out any such possibility.
        Anxiously, hoping that first impressions gave a pessimistic view of the true situation, Matty the postman knelt beside the motionless form of the shepherd and turned him over out of the worst of the blood.
        As he did so he shuddered horribly and let the form fall back again, John Bollinger was recognisable, but only just. He had been mutilated almost beyond recognition, and as far as the old postman could judge, it had been done by teeth but not teeth like those of the Old English sheep dog. They were enormous teeth, gigantic teeth, huge, gargantuan teeth. Surely only a lion or a giant bear----perhaps a sabre-toothed tiger could have made such marks, could have done such damage. It was as though the shepherd had fallen, not once but many times, into a great steel bear trap, which had released him only to snap at him again. But that was quite impossible. It couldn't have been so, it couldn't. . . .
        Stumbling, dazed, shocked, old Matty staggered from the hut. He half-ran, half-scrambled down the slope until he reached the cottage below, nearly a quarter of a mile distant.
        He thundered on the door, it was only then he noticed that the Old English sheep dog was at his heels, and looked at him imploringly, as though to say, "don't leave me". He patted the dog affectionately as the door opened.
        Luke Ransome, the other shepherd working that pasturage, stepped out on to the step and gave a broad smile.
        "Hallo Matty, what brings you a-knockin' on the door? You brought me a summons?" And then he noticed how dazed and shocked the postman looked.
        "That's John Bollinger," whispered old Matty, pointing up the hill. "He's dead, Luke; John Bollinger's dead!"
        "I'll come at once," said Luke, his smile fading into a look of seriousness. "How did it happen Matty, have you any idea?"
        "None," replied the postman, "none at all. I can't describe it, I can't describe it, Luke; it's like some terrible accident!"
        "Some sort of accident?" Luke looked puzzled, perplexed.
        "Some sort of terrible accident," repeated old Matty, "Years and years ago I had to serve on an inquest jury, in the city, and it was terrible. There was a man had fallen into a machine----that's how poor old John looks."
        "Fallen into a machine?" repeated Luke. "Are you sure, Matty?"
        "Honestly, come and see. Though I don't know whether I dare go in there again."
        "I'm not going in there without you," said Luke.
        "All right, two's company," agreed Matty, "come on, we'll go together."
        It was a slow, anxious climb back to Bollinger's hut. They reached the door.
        "I'd rather you went in first," said Luke. Matty drew a deep breath.
        "All right then," he said, "but I don't want to look!'" Finally he stepped across the threshold with Luke close behind him. Bollinger's body lay exactly as he had last seen it. The blood was congealing beneath it."
        "Turn him over," said Luke,
        "I don't want to touch him again," replied Matty. Gingerly Luke put a hand on the body.
        "He's still warm," he said. "It can't have been done long. . . ."
        He lifted the lifeless form of Bollinger from the floor, took one look at the underside of what had once been John Bollinger, and gave a strangled cry.
        "Dreadful!" he got out at last. "That's absolutely dreadful," and then their eyes met.
        "It couldn't have been the dog gone mad, could it? It couldn't have been the dog?"
        "No," said Matty. "I've known John's dog for years. It couldn't have been the dog. Look at the size of those teeth marks! Ever see a dog with teeth like that?"
        "No, I didn't," agreed Luke. "It's absolutely horrible. It's like you say, as if he'd been caught in some horrible great machine. As though he's been torn. It's like a little tiny animal picked up by an eagle. It's like when a great dog, or cat, catches hold of a rat. Something enormous must have done that."
        "We'd better get the police, I suppose," said Matty. Being a Civil Servant himself, albeit a very flexible one, he still thought along semi-official lines. When a tragedy happened somebody had to notify the final authority of some sort. It was just one of those things. . . . One of the ways in which the civilised world runs.
        "I suppose we shall," said Luke, "Come on, let's stick together. I feel really shook up! I don't want never to see anything like that again, as long as I live!"
        They went down the path together. John Bollinger's dog still followed them, pathetically.
        "What about the poor old fella, then?" said Luke when they finally reached his cottage. Then he answered his own question. "He'll be all right along o' my Spot. They get on well together. They often work together in trials. I'll take him in of nobody else don't want him. He's a fine dog. Poor old John thought the world of him. I feel as though I wronged him when I thought it might ha' been the dog done it!"
        "I wonder where he was when it happened?" said Matty. "If anyone was to attack you, your Spot would go for him. They got the heart of a lion, these sheep dogs! Even if you was attacked by some great beast, if John had been attacked by----say something escaped from a circus, a----"
        "Wait a minute. Before we go any further I'm going to get my gun," said Luke. He pulled a double barrel .12 bore down from above the fire place in his hut, and loaded it carefully. "I got heavy buck shot in there," he said. "I use it for foxes. Now, if whatever it was is still about----do you think anything could have escaped from a circus?"
        "But what? What could do as much damage as that? It would have to be something as big as a lion, or bigger. I just don't know at all . . ." said Old Matty. "By the look of those wounds you'd think the teeth were six inches long and an inch across. It looks as though someone set about him with a pick-axe;"
        "Maybe they aren't teeth marks," said Luke. "Maybe we're all wrong. Maybe he was----murdered? Murdered by a mad man with a pick-axe or an iron bar."
        "Police'll soon find out," said Matty, but he didn't feel as confident as he sounded. "Police are very clever these days. They find out most things."
        With Luke clutching his shotgun, the two men made their way on down to the village.
        Colsey Bridge had one policeman whose services were also required in the neighbouring parish. He was a Cumberland man himself, tall and broad shouldered. Slow and methodical by nature, but full of the wisdom of the countryside.
        "You're both sure of this?" he said. "You aren't possibly making a mistake, now?"
        Matty told him the story again, and Luke confirmed it.
        "I'll ring up the sergeant over in the city," said Constable George Travers. "I shall have to have some help on this one! Do you think it could be some kind of great animal escaped? I mean I'd better get the sergeant to bring a gun over."
        "Well, I'm carrying my shot gun, and I ain't going very far without it, until this is cleared up," said Luke fervently. "You should ha' seen poor old John----torn to pieces!"
        Constable Travers gulped. He was no coward, but it was a pretty graphic description.
        "I don't like the sound of this'n at all," he said. "I don't like the sound of it!"
        "Do you want me to come with you, or can you find the cottage?" asked the postman.
        "I can find it," said George, "I bin about here long enough for that!"
        "I'm glad o' that," avowed Matty, "I don't want to go up there no more! Not for many a day!"

*        *        *

        As the constable made his way up the hill, not far away a long, low, powerful sports saloon nosed its way over the tricky north-western roads. It was the kind of car that would have seemed more at home speeding along at 120 m.p.h. plus, on a big metropolitan by-pass. It was a sophisticated car, a sleek, perfect car, It spoke of modernity and power, it seemed somehow to reflect the personality of the driver and passenger. Val Stearman sat nonchalantly behind the wheel, a tall broad-shouldered man, who looked at life with gay debonair eyes of gentle dark grey. Yet those same eyes that could one moment be gentle and compassionate, and filled with dancing good humour, could, when necessary freeze into chips of grey steel. They were accurate indicators of opposite sides of Stearman's personality. They were frightening eyes, powerful eyes. The eyes of an adventurer, the eyes of a hero, the eyes of a man; above all things else a man. The hair that framed the eyes within that strong, ruggedly handsome face, was curly and black, turning iron-grey. The jaw was strong and resolute, the teeth firm, white and even. The neck was broad, strong and heavy, as though to support the weight of the bull-like head. The muscular shoulders, and the great barrel chest were perfectly proportioned in that fine, athletic torso.
        One glance at Val Stearman was enough to tell that the big journalist-adventurer, who had rough-housed his way round three continents and a host of lesser places, was very certainly a man to be reckoned with, both physically and mentally. There was a bulge under his right armpit, and it was not due in any way to a failure on the part of his tailor. It was not due in any way to a rolled up pullover, or a crumpled shirt. The smooth and yet just noticeable bulge concealed the outlines of a beautiful Browning .45 automatic. It was a beautifully balanced gun, a piece of artistry of death----and it was not for decoration. There was something specific about the gun beneath the bulge, it was not loaded with lead, it was not loaded with 'iron, cold iron', of which the poet sings. The bullets were not of bronze or nickel, they were not of tungsten and they were not of beryllium. They gleamed with a pure-ish white light, for the bullets in the big Browning were silver! And they were silver for a particular purpose. As well as the physical adventures in which Val Stearman had gut involved, in a spectacular and energetic Life, there were other adventures which were not physical----psychic adventures,
        It was a psychic adventure that had begun most of the others, when he had first met the beautiful woman who now sat beside him. Mrs. La Noire Stearman was a Cleopatra-like beauty, with her magnificently sensuous figure and her exquisite blue-black hair, blown perfectly around the enchanting face. She was exquisitely beautiful in a classical way----not the cheap, tawdry, snub-nosed passing glamour, that depended upon the fad of fashion, or the whim of contemporaneity----hers was a timeless, ageless beauty which confined in its depths all the secretiveness of Eve; all the beguiling fascination of Ayesha. Val stole a swift sideways glance at his alluring wife, and realised again just what a lucky man he was.
        The powerful sports saloon continued to leap over the singularly typical mountain road. And then the paths of Constable George Travers and the paths of Val Stearman and La Noire crossed.

*        *        *

        Travers reached the shepherd's hut, opened the door of Bollinger's home, it had been Bollinger's hut for so long that Travers couldn't force himself to believe that Bollinger was dead. It didn't make sense. Old John had been part of the hill, old John had been part of the village, part of the countryside, part of the community. He had been not a pillar of society in the accepted sense, but he had been something far more important. He had been a mainstay of the community. John Bollinger had been a quiet friendly man, full of country love and country good humour. John Bollinger had been a faithful companion; a true, loyal and trusted friend. It was with very mixed feelings George Travers opened the door of the hut. . . .
        What could it be? What, he asked himself a thousand times over, could possibly----?
        His eyes came to rest on Bollinger's blood-stained cadaver, and he left the sentence unfinished. He swallowed hard as he looked at it.
        "Oh, my God," he said. There was nobody to hear him, but somehow, giving vent to the exclamation was some help.
        "Oh God!" he whispered again, and this time it sounded as though he was about to be violently, physically sick. But George Travers, like any other policeman, knew the meaning of duty. George was one of those country policemen to whom doing the right thing was the essential factor, as far as his work went. He had a vocation for police work. It was as important to him as preaching and visiting are to the parish priest. It was as important to him, as understanding his children is to the dedicated teacher, or healing his patients is to the dedicated physician. If it was in the line of duty it had to be done. It wasn't easy, but as far as George Travers was concerned that was no excuse. He began examining the body. He was wondering how long it would be before the sergeant arrived from the city. Not long, because he had made his call urgent before coming up to the hut. He began looking round for some kind of clue. He turned his gaze away from the mutilated corpse, and then he saw something which had apparently escaped the eyes of Matty and Luke Ransome. He saw a trail; a trail which could only be footprints. Huge prints like the tracks of some man-eating beast!
        The size of those prints put more fear into his heart than even the sight of the mangled body had put revulsion. They were unlike the prints of any beast he had ever seen before. And George Travers was an amateur naturalist; many countrymen are. When he did visit the city, which was admittedly rare, the zoo was one of his favourite 'ports of call', and he knew that no animal that had ever graced the zoo, or its gardens, had left prints like this. But still, to George Travers, duty was duty. . . . He had 'borrowed' Luke Ransome's gun, for Luke was staying down in the village to guide the sergeant from the city up to the shepherd's hut. He was very glad that he had that gun. Holding the big double barrelled .12 bore at the ready he began following the trail of footprints. They went up and round the side of the mountain, away, from the pastures to an area of bare, black, barren rock. It was not a pleasant place; an aura of fear seemed to hang over it like a pall, It was as though man was not welcome on this part of the mountain. And suddenly, as he thought about it, Travers realised, that possibly as the result of his own deep laid instinct, for he was a Cumberland man, born and bred, he had never been up there, for all the many years that he had lived and worked in the village. Come to think of it, he couldn't remember seeing any tourists up there.
        The climb was not difficult, but neither was it easy. It was a forbidding section of mountain, He looked down to the road far below. A car was wending its way up the hill. It was being driven very expertly, and it was obvious to the local constable that the car did not belong in that area. He had never seen it there before, and considering that to the driver of the big sports saloon the road must be strange, he was making a magnificent job of the tricky ascent. The road would take him within a few hundred feet of the rock face, across which the policeman was now climbing.
        Up ahead of him Travers saw a cave. He looked down at the prints and then he looked up at the cave. Even though it was daylight, he had his policeman's bull's eye lantern with him and he was glad of it at this moment. His sixth sense warned him that those prints were heading for the cave and that if this problem was to have a solution, it was in the cave that the solution would lie. . . .
        Duty urged him on, common sense tried to hold him back.
        Fear, instinctive and older than time, leapt up into his mind, a thousand racial memories vied with his sense of duty to keep him out of that cave. But George Travers was a British policeman, and George Travers went on.
        He did not go on without a slight tremble, but the hand that held the gun and the finger on the trigger were steady.
        George Travers entered the cave; it was as though he had stepped across the threshold of some weird, alien world. . . . To think that this dark, sinister opening into the very bowels of the mountain was within a few hundred feet of the road where people----ordinary living, laughing, talking, breathing human beings walked, seemed incredible. It was as though be had stepped across the centuries, as though he was back in a strange twilight age where ogres and monsters were an everyday occurrence. It was as though he had walked into a realm of fantasy where werewolves and tiger men, ghouls and ghosts, all kinds of unknown horrors and eldritch monsters uttering horrific ululations, sprang at the unwary visitor. He seemed to have stepped across the boundary to the world of Unreason. Nothing made sense in here.
        And yet, just a few inches behind him was daylight, ordinary daylight and the side of the somehow terrifying rock face.
        The magnificent sports car on the road below suddenly chugged, spluttered and stopped.
        "What the hell?" said Stearman in the vernacular tongue.
        "Beg pardon, dear?" said La Noire with a little laugh.
        "Well I'm damned!" exclaimed Stearman.
        "What is it?" she asked.
        "Block in the petrol, somewhere, I think," answered Val, "only a silly little thing, but it'll mean taking the pipe off and blowing through it, and cleaning the carb out."
        "Never mind," consoled La Noire, "we're only going into the village, and we shall be there in jolly good time."
        "All very well for you to be philosophical," said Val, "but you aren't the one who has to do the cleaning out of carburrettors and blowing through pipes!" La Noire smiled again and gave him a little pout. The exasperated journalist climbed out and lifted the bonnet.
        George Travers heard something moving in the depth of the cave. It was a terrifying sound, a sound as though a great, heavy, animal something was dragging itself angrily across loose, slithering stone on the cave floor. It was one of the most frightening sounds that George Travers had ever heard. He bit his lip, fighting back an instinct to run with every ounce of power in his being. His bull's eye lantern was held steadily along the gun barrel. George was determined that he was going to hold his ground at all costs.
        Then, from out of the innermost depths of that cave, came a thing that was indescribable in its horror, and yet every detail of which was somehow imprinted upon Travers' mind. He saw a great bestial body, surmounted by a quasi-human head, yet the eyes in that head were not human. They were dreadful, blemished orbs radiating venomous red glances. The ears were jagged, pointed protrusions on the side of the head. The whole thing was covered with ragged, matted, blood-caked fur----thick, coarse fur. And then it made a sound.
        Travers didn't hesitate. There were times when he firmly believed that he who shoots first, lasts. And he had every intention of lasting, if it was humanly possible.
        The recoil of the powerful .12 bore moved him back, for the duck cartridge had a heavy charge. The acrid fumes of the powder filled the cave with rank odour. The report sounded thunderous in the confines of the cavern. The thing, the hideous mountain thing-----part man, part beast, staggered as the full impact of the shot tore into it.
        The second barrel went off almost simultaneously with the first, and George Travers knew, was prepared to swear on his dying oath that he had scored a direct hit, between thorax and abdomen----if any kind of anatomical delineation could be applied to so vile a travesty of life. And then the thing made another noise. Not a gasping, choking scream of death, which Travers had hoped for and expected, but a roar that sounded like a cross between amusement and fury. Amusement at Travers' puny efforts to stop it; fury that he had dared to cross its path, that he had ventured into its lair. Travers was a brave man, but he defied any man to loose off two blasts from a .12 bore, to see them strike the target less than three yards from the muzzle of the gun, and then to see that same target laughing its derision, as with hideous head held high, it hurled itself horrifically forward and the cavernous mouth opened as though to rival the cave.
        George Travers turned to run, and the thing, the hideous, savage, part-man, part-beast thing, came staggering from the cave behind him on ghastly, unwieldy legs.
        "Help!" roared George Travers, and in the valley below, a big, broad-shouldered man, with laughing grey eyes and curly, iron-grey hair, looked up from the bonnet of his car. Looked up and saw the bestial thing in pursuit of the stalwart policeman.
        Travers was slipping and sliding from rock to rock, rolling down smooth faces, regaining his balance, and all the time the thing loped after him in fury.
        Stearman pointed up the mountain side, above his head.
        "La Noire! Look, darling! Look at that thing!"
        "Whatever is it?" she gasped.
        They had shared many weird, psychic adventures together; they had seen werewolves and vampires; they had destroyed a ghoul; they had fought against a coven of black magicians, and won----but never in the whole of their experience as psychic adventurers had they ever seen anything to equal this.
        "It's outside all my experience," said Stearman.
        "It's a nameless horror," whispered La Noire, Val stopped to say no more. The big Browning was out of its holster and in his hand. He was streaking up the mountain side as fast as his powerful, athletic legs would carry him. It was a race against time. A race against death. A race against the Unknown, the Unknowable. A race against the unnamed, the unnameable. Somehow, more by luck than judgement, Stearman found himself winning that race. There was less distance between himself and the stalwart constable than there was between the policeman and the monster.
        "Help!" roared Travers again. And in that moment the whole situation reversed itself.
        The burly constable slipped, tripped, caught his head on a rock, and lay prone.
        Stearman's magnificent chest expanded to its fullest capicity and he sucked in volumes of cool, thin mountain air. The thing was a matter of thirty yards from the policeman, Stearman was twenty-five yards below. The thing had the advantage of the downhill ground. It seemed to sense the advantage, screaming horrifically, emitting ghastly, ululations roaring like a thousand tornado devils, it descended like some great carnivore upon its luckless prey.
        It was ten yards from the inert form of George Travers when Val Stearman fired. The first shot went wide, and that was an unusual thing, for Val Stearman could shoot the spot off the ace of spades at thirty paces, and he could do it nine times out of ten. It was more that the creature had ducked and swerved out of the way of the shot, but that didn't alter the situation.
        He had to do it right, do it right first time, or it looked as though George Travers was going to die. Desperately, he pulled the trigger again, and once more, as though protected by an aura of evil cosmic force, the creature managed to avoid the deadly silver bullet. Silver the holy metal; silver, which was fatal to the evil metabolism of nearly any creature of the kingdom of darkness. Stearman was sweating. The monstrous thing, the hideous caricature of humanity, the thing part man, part beast, the indescribable, unnameable, unknowable horror was about to envelope the policeman with its great claws.
        Stearman, determined not to miss again, did the only thing that a man like Stearman would do in those circumstances, for Stearman was unique.
        In a flying tackle he covered the last six feet and crashed his gigantic, rock-hard shoulder into the abdomen of the thing that was even at that moment stooping upon the inert form of George Travers.
        Monster or no monster, supernormal or not supernormal, it staggered back before the force of that charge, and at the same instant Stearman rammed the gun into its stomach----if such a beast could be said to have anything resembling a human stomach, and pressed the trigger three times in quick succession. The shots rang out like one protracted explosion.
        A look that might have been surprise, incredulity, and then horrified understanding, crossed the face of the unnameable thing, the man-beast. It seemed to say the impossible had happened.
        It staggered, fell to its 'knees' and began to disintegrate into dust before Stearman's eyes. Travers recovered himself a little, and with the journalist's assistance he managed to sit up. Then they started off back down the road to the car. The constable was still a little dazed and bewildered.
        "That thing," he kept repeating. "What was it?"
        "I don't know," answered Stearman, "I don't suppose we ever will know. And I thought I'd seen quite a lot of the supernatural realm."
        "It wasn't human, and it wasn't a beast," said the constable, "probably a mixture of the worst in both. But where did it come from?"
        Stearman shook his head.
        "We know a lot in the 20th century," he said darkly, "but we don't know everything. It is when we start imagining we know everything we find out just how dangerous the Unknown is! In this century we've got atom bombs, and we understand relativity. We know what A2----B2 is and we can solve the riddle of the square on the hypotenuse----come to that they could do that several hundred years ago----we can send rockets to the moon, and we can put sputniks into orbit, but there are still things that we don't know, and I reckon as long as this old world keeps turning there will always be things that we shall never fully comprehend."
        He cleared out the blocked petrol pipe, and they drove on into the village.
        "Sergeant from city will take some convincing," said Constable Travers ruefully.


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