Weird Tales/Volume 31/Issue 3/Guarded
By MEARLE PROUT
A brief tale of a murder and an attempted murder—by the author of "The House of the Worm"
The sound of a shot suddenly broke the stillness of the May morning, and echoed back from across the valley. A puff of blue smoke arose from a clump of green-briars and drifted away downwind. Out in the road, Abner Simmons dropped the bag of grain he was carrying and, with a look of dumb surprize, sank in a quivering heap to the ground. Half his side had been shot away.
The green-briars parted with a sudden life and Jed Tolliver emerged, straightening his long form as he shambled toward the road. As he walked he broke his double-barreled shotgun, flicked out the empty cartridge and blew through the barrel, sending a thin stream of acrid smoke out of the chamber. He stooped over his fallen enemy.
"Said I'd get you," he reminded the other brutally. He inserted a fresh cartridge and closed the gun with a snap.
The man in the road rolled over with a convulsive movement and stared up at him.
"That kid brother of yours is next—and last," Jed continued. "Then I'll be through with the lot of you."
Abner grinned. It is an awful thing to see a dying man grin. Jed shuddered in spite of himself.
"You can't, Jed—not Ezekiel——"
It was not a pleading. Rather, it was calm, assured, as though the other were stating a known fact. Jed shuddered again, before he felt quick anger rising.
"I got you, didn't I?" he said, ejecting a thick stream of tobacco juice. "What makes you think I won't get Ezekiel the same way?"
"You won't, Jed—you can't—because—I won't let you!"
He was fast weakening from the frightful flow of blood. Overcome from the effort of speaking, Abner closed his eyes and lay still. A second later a sudden convulsive movement shook his body, and his eyes opened again. This time they were fixed and staring.
With a grunt of satisfaction Jed shouldered his gun and started back up the mountain, moving with the long effortless stride of the Tennessee mountaineer. He did not fear punishment for his crime. Here in the Tennessee mountains the long arm of the law seldom reached. The only thing to fear in a case of this kind was the dead man's relatives, and now there was only one—Ezekiel, a slim lad of twenty, who could not even shoot expertly.
Yes, Jed reflected as his long strides carried him through the sparse growth of cedar and blackjack, this part of Tennessee would soon again be a decent, God-fearing community.... Foreigners, the Simmonses had been, from somewhere back East—Carolina, or Virginia, maybe. They hadn't been like the mountain-folk....
And what was that crazy talk Abner had made? He'd stop Jed from getting Ezekiel? How could he, if he was dead? Jed chuckled to himself. Here in Tennessee, folk didn't believe....
More than a week passed before Jed again took his well-oiled shotgun from its place on the wall and started over the mountain. He was in no great hurry about Ezekiel—instead, he rather enjoyed waiting. Ezekiel was the last of the three Simmons brothers, and knowing that the foreigner was over there, and that he was going to kill him, gave life a curious sort of zest.... Likely the kid didn't even know who shot his brother. Jed laughed silently at the thought, adding to himself that the boy probably wouldn't do anything about it if he did know. He wasn't like the mountain people....
But this morning all of Jed's impatience had returned. The sun shone hotly on the Tennessee hills, and raised an almost visible veil of vapor from the tiny branch which Sowed through the hollow. Well, he'd waited long enough. With a grimace of distaste at the three-mile traipse across two mountains, Jed swung his gun over his shoulder and started down the slope.
When, an hour and a half later, he arrived at the small clearing which was the Simmons place, he was not as tired as he had expected to be. The nervous exhilaration of the man-hunt buoyed him up, made him tensely aware of things around him. He paused only a moment at the fringe of scrub oak that bordered the clearing; then, bending almost double, he sprinted a hundred feet to the grape-arbor.
Safe inside the leafy bower, Jed leaned his gun against a supporting post and looked about. Here the vines had been trained over a rude wooden lattice so that a thick wall and roof of leaves now effectively hid him from anyone outside.
Jed parted the leaves carefully and peered out. A hundred feet behind him was the low wall of forest he had just left; two hundred feet in front of him was the house—a rude two-room shack; two hundred feet beyond that the wall of the forest began again. Jed looked at the house more closely. There was no sign of movement, but the thin line of smoke which curled from the chimney told him that Ezekiel was inside, probably preparing his midday meal. With a sigh of contentment he sat down and leaned back closer to his gun, idly listening to the chatter of birds in the forest, and the rustling of the leaves in the arbor.
How long Jed sat there he did not know. He was suddenly aroused from a semi-stupor by the sound of a banging door. Startled into instant activity, he swung around to peer through the leaves. Ezekiel was leaving the house, swinging in his hand an empty water-bucket. Going to the spring, Jed reckoned. If so, his path would take him within fifty feet of the arbor. Jed gloated.
With hands suddenly unsteady, the man in the arbor laid his gun on the ground, the muzzle barely extending through the leaves. Why take a chance? He would wait—at fifty feet he couldn't miss.
Unmindful of his danger, Ezekiel came slowly down the path, bearing diagonally nearer to the arbor.... Jed suddenly wondered why he no longer heard the aimless chatter of birds in the forest, why the light wind no longer stirred the broad leaves above him. It was uncanny, this noonday quiet. Impatiently, he shook off the feeling.
"So I can't do it, Abner?" he whispered to the empty air, but somehow the words clutched at his throat, and he wished he hadn't said it. No matter, a few seconds now——
Jed cursed the trembling of his hands as he aimed. What was the matter with him? He could see Ezekiel's slender form now above the barrel of his gun; he nerved himself to pull tire trigger. The top of his head suddenly gone cold, Jed dropped the gun and looked quickly around him. No, the day was bright as ever—yet he could have sworn.... Half-heartedly now, he picked up the gun to sight at the form which had already passed the nearest point. He had not been wrong! A black nebulous cloud hovered over the barrel of his gun and created the illusion of darkest night!
Shrieking a curse, Jed Tolliver leapt upright and pointed, not aimed, the gun at where Ezekiel should be. He snapped both triggers simultaneously, but as he fired something clutched at his arm, and the hot lead sizzled harmlessly through the air.
Shaking as with a chill, blind rage within him struggling with black fear, the mountaineer stood irresolutely within his leafy ambush. He was quickly aroused to activity by a loud report and the crash of lead against the wooden lattice. A sharp pain burned his left arm where one of the pellets had found its mark. Ezekiel had fled to the house and opened fire.
Without waiting to reload his gun, Jed crashed through the side of the bower and fled to the safety of the trees. As he entered, buckshot spattered harmlessly around him.
Safe within the sheltering growth, Jed halted to reload his gun.
"Damn you, Abner!" he shouted to the stunted oaks. "I'll get him yet!"
As he turned to go he thought he heard a low mocking laugh, but reasoned later that it was only a squirrel chattering a protest at the sound of his voice.
Jed reached home in a blue funk. The long tramp across the mountains in the early summer heat had melted away most of his fears, but his nerves were still badly shaken. Now that he could look at the incident in a sober light, he refused to credit his senses. As the distance between himself and the scene increased, he had come more and more to believe the occurrence an hallucination, brought on by the long walk through the heat. After all, he recalled, he had almost fallen asleep in the arbor while waiting for Ezekiel to appear. Perhaps he had dreamed part of it?...
However logical Jed believed his explanation, he did not again go near the Simmons place. Weeks passed. Always he promised himself that he would soon finish the task so ingloriously begun, but day by day he waited, until nearly three months had gone. At first he had feared Ezekiel had recognized him in those few seconds it had taken to sprint from the grape-arbor to the cover of the woods. Later, as he heard nothing of it, he decided he was safe from that side. The end came in an unexpected manner. One afternoon early in August Jed had walked to the village. He stayed longer than he had intended, and shadows were already growing long when he started home. Not wishing to be out later than necessary, he took a short-cut through the woods which would take him within a haif-mile of the Simmons place.
The sun was setting as he entered the Simmons hollow, a half-mile below the house. He felt vaguely uneasy. Though he told himself he was not frightened, he found himself wishing for the protection of his gun. Nervously, his hand strayed to the hunting-knife stuck in his belt, and tested the keen edge.
Walking diagonally across the hollow, which was largely devoid of trees, he turned aside to go around a cluster of young cedars which was directly in his path. Suddenly he drew back sharply. Again his hand tested the keen edge of that knife, but not this time from nervousness. Jed was not thinking now of defense.
Two hundred feet beyond the cedars, on the smooth unbroken grass floor of the hollow, was a man milking. His back was turned to the cedars, but Jed thought he recognized that slim youthful form. He believed it was Ezekiel,
Stepping lightly, one hand on his belt where he could immediately grasp the knife, Jed moved into the open. Halfway across the level space, his hand moved yet closer to the knife, while the ghost of a grin curved his lips. Without a doubt it was Ezekiel Simmons. The man milking did not look up. The milk jetted into the half-filled bucket with a low murmur, just loud enough to mask Jed's guarded footsteps.
Step by step Jed advanced. If only Ezekiel did not see him! If only the cow did not sense his presence and turn unexpectedly! Step by step further—Jed was tense with excitement. There was no midday sun this time to blind his eyes and fill his soul with a nameless fear. Nor would he be unnerved by the twilight stillness; it was always still at sunset, here in these mountains....
Ten feet now. The milk still swished into the pail uninterruptedly, the steady grinding of the cow's molars never ceased.
Suddenly Jed tugged at his belt and leapt forward.
"Got you!" he shouted aloud.
But the exultant cry died suddenly into a moan of horror. The arm bearing the knife poised high for the blow, Jed felt something like an electric shock course through its length. Instead of swinging forward to strike the man in front of him, the knife turned in his hand, his wrist and elbow bent at a crazy angle, and the razor-edge steel ripped through the cords of his neck.
Staggered more by his realization of the awful consequences than by present pain, Jed sank to the grass, while gouts of blood spurted from a torn jugular. His first mad terror past, he became aware that Ezekiel was standing over him, scorn darkening his features.
"So it was you, Tolliver. Abner warned me—about you."
"I'd have got you too—only Abner "
"Abner was a good brother. He told me—weeks before he died—that if anything happened, he'd—guard me."
Jed felt himself weaker. His head was strangely without weight, and objects around swam lazily in the pale twilight. He lay back on the grass.
"Should have got you, Ezekiel—shouldn't have—missed," he murmured sleepily as the shadows gathered.
He raised his head slightly to listen. Was that a light mocking laugh he heard in the grass beside him? He listened again, before the darkness came down. No—he could not be sure....