There was death in the camp.
I knew when I awoke that it had come to stand with us in the night and was waiting now for the day to break and flood the desert with light. There was a prickling at the base of my scalp and I was drenched with cold sweat.
I had an impulse to leap up and go stumbling about in the darkness. But I disciplined myself. I crossed my arms and waited for the sky to grow bright.
Daybreak on Mars is like nothing you’ve ever dreamed about. You wake up in the morning, and there it is--bright and clear and shining. You pinch yourself, you sit up straight, but it doesn’t vanish.
Then you stare at your hands with the big callouses. You reach for a mirror to take a look at your face. That’s not so good. That’s where ugliness enters the picture. You look around and you see Ralph. You see Harry. You see the women.
On Earth a woman may not look her glamorous best in the harsh light of early dawn, but if she’s really beautiful she doesn’t look too bad. On Mars even the most beautiful woman looks angry on arising, too weary and tormented by human shortcomings to take a prefabricated metal shack and turn it into a real home for a man.
You have to make allowances for a lot of things on Mars. You have to start right off by accepting hardship and privation as your daily lot. You have to get accustomed to living in construction camps in the desert, with the red dust making you feel all hollow and dried up inside. Making you feel like a drum, a shriveled pea pod, a salted fish hung up to dry. Dust inside of you, rattling around, canal water seepage rotting the soles of your boots.
So you wake up and you stare. The night before you’d collected driftwood and stacked it by the fire. The driftwood has disappeared. Someone has stolen your very precious driftwood. The Martians? Guess again.
You get up and you walk straight up to Ralph with your shoulders squared. You say, “Ralph, why in hell did you have to steal my driftwood?”
In your mind you say that. You say it to Dick, you say it to Harry. But what you really say is, “Larsen was here again last night!”
You say, I put a fish on to boil and Larsen ate it. I had a nice deck of cards, all shiny and new, and Larsen marked them up. It wasn’t me cheating. It was Larsen hoping I’d win so that he could waylay me in the desert and get all of the money away from me.
You have a girl. There aren’t too many girls in the camps with laughter and light and fire in them. But there are a few, and if you’re lucky you take a fancy to one particular girl--her full red lips and her spun gold hair. All of a sudden she disappears. Somebody runs off with her. It’s Larsen.
In every man there is a slumbering giant. When life roars about you on a world that’s rugged and new you’ve got to go on respecting the lads who have thrown in their lot with you, even when their impulses are as harsh as the glint of sunlight on a desert-polished tombstone.
You think of a name--Larsen. You start from scratch and you build Larsen up until you have a clear picture of him in your mind. You build him up until he’s a great shouting, brawling, golden man like Paul Bunyon.
Even a wicked legend can seem golden on Mars. Larsen wasn’t just my slumbering giant--or Dick’s, or Harry’s. He was the slumbering giant in all of us, and that’s what made him so tremendous. Anything gigantic has beauty and power and drive to it.
Alone we couldn’t do anything with Larsen’s gusto, so when some great act of wickedness was done with gusto how could it be us? Here comes Larsen! He’ll shoulder all the guilt, but he won’t feel guilty because he’s the first man in Eden, the child who never grew up, the laughing boy, Hercules balancing the world on his shoulders and looking for a woman with long shining tresses and eyes like the stars of heaven to bend to his will.
If such a woman came to life in Hercules’ arms would you like the job of stopping him from sending the world crashing? Would you care to try?
Don’t you see? Larsen was closer to us than breathing and as necessary as food and drink and our dreams of a brighter tomorrow. Don’t think we didn’t hate him at times. Don’t think we didn’t curse and revile him. You may glorify a legend from here to eternity, but the luster never remains completely untarnished.
Larsen wouldn’t have seemed completely real to us if we hadn’t given him muscles that could tire and eyes that could blink shut in weariness. Larsen had to sleep, just as we did. He’d disappear for days.
We’d wink and say, “Larsen’s getting a good long rest this time. But he’ll be back with something new up his sleeve, don’t you worry!”
We could joke about it, sure. When Larsen stole or cheated we could pretend we were playing a game with loaded dice--not really a deadly game, but a game full of sound and fury with a great rousing outburst of merriment at the end of it.
But there are deadlier games by far. I lay motionless, my arms locked across my chest, sweating from every pore. I stared at Harry. We’d been working all night digging a well, and in a few days water would be bubbling up sweet and cool and we wouldn’t have to go to the canal to fill our cooking utensils. Harry was blinking and stirring and I could tell just by looking at him that he was uneasy too. I looked beyond him at the circle of shacks.
Most of us were sleeping in the open, but there were a few youngsters in the shacks and women too worn out with drudgery to care much whether they slept in smothering darkness or under the clear cold light of the stars.
I got slowly to my knees, scooped up a handful of sand, and let it dribble slowly through my fingers. Harry looked straight at me and his eyes widened in alarm. It must have been the look on my face. He arose and crossed to where I was sitting, his mouth twitching slightly. There was nothing very reassuring about Harry. Life had not been kind to him and he had resigned himself to accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without protest. He had one of those emaciated, almost skull-like faces which terrify children, and make women want to cry.
“You don’t look well, Tom,” he said. “You’ve been driving yourself too hard.”
I looked away quickly. I had to tell him, but anything terrifying could demoralize Harry and make him throw his arm before his face in blind panic. But I couldn’t keep it locked up inside me an instant longer.
“Sit down, Harry,” I whispered. “I want to talk to you. No sense in waking the others.”
“Oh,” he said.
He squatted beside me on the sand, his eyes searching my face. “What is it, Tom?”
“I heard a scream,” I said. “It was pretty awful. Somebody has been hurt--bad. It woke me up, and that takes some doing.”
Harry nodded. “You sleep like a log,” he said.
“I just lay still and listened,” I said, “with my eyes wide open. Something moved out from the well--a two-legged something. It didn’t make a sound. It was big, Harry, and it seemed to melt into the shadows. I don’t know what kept me from leaping up and going after it. It had something to do with the way I felt. All frozen up inside.”
Harry appeared to understand. He nodded, his eyes darting toward the well. “How long ago was that?”
“You just waited for me to wake up?”
“That’s right,” I said. “There was something about the scream that made me want to put off finding out. Two’s company--and when you’re alone with something like that it’s best to talk it over before you act.”
I could see that Harry was pleased. Unnerved too, and horribly shaken. But he was pleased that I had turned to him as a friend I could trust. When you can’t depend on life for anything else it’s good to know you have a friend.
I brushed sand from my trousers and got up. “Come on,” I said. “We’ll take a look.”
It was an ordeal for him. His face twitched and his eyes wavered. He knew I hadn’t lied about the scream. If a single scream could unnerve me that much it had to be bad.
We walked to the well in complete silence. There were shadows everywhere, chill and forbidding. Almost like people they seemed, whispering together, huddling close in ominous gossipy silence, aware of what we would find.
It was a sixty-foot walk from the fire to the well. A walk in the sun--a walk in the bright hot sun of Mars, with utter horror perhaps at the end of it.
The horror was there. Harry made a little choking noise deep in his throat, and my heart started pounding like a bass drum.
The man on the sand had no top to his head. His skull had been crushed and flattened so hideously that he seemed like a wooden figure resting there--an anatomical dummy with its skull-case lifted off.
We looked around for the skull-case, hoping we’d find it, hoping we’d made a mistake and stumbled by accident into an open-air dissecting laboratory and were looking at ghastly props made of plastic and glittering metal instead of bone and muscle and flesh.
But the man on the sand had a name. We’d known him for weeks and talked to him. He wasn’t a medical dummy, but a corpse. His limbs were hideously convulsed, his eyes wide and staring. The sand beneath his head was clotted with dried blood. We looked for the weapon which had crushed his skull but couldn’t find it.
We looked for the weapon before we saw the footprints in the sand. Big they were--incredibly large and massive. A man with a size-twelve shoe might have left such prints if the leather had become a little soggy and spread out around the soles.
“The poor guy,” Harry whispered.
I knew how he felt. We had all liked Ned. A harmless little guy with a great love of solitude, a guy who hadn’t a malicious hair in his head. A happy little guy who liked to sing and dance in the light of a high-leaping fire. He had a banjo and was good at music making. Who could have hated Ned with a rage so primitive and savage? I looked at Harry and saw that he was wondering the same thing.
Harry looked pretty bad, about ready to cave in. He was leaning against the well, a tormented fury in his eyes.
“The murderous bastard,” he muttered. “I’d like to get him by the throat and choke the breath out of him. Who’d want to do a thing like that to Ned.”
“I can’t figure it either,” I said.
Then I remembered. I don’t think Molly Egan really could have loved Ned. The curious thing about it was that Ned didn’t even need the kind of love she could have given him. He was a self-sufficient little guy despite his frailness and didn’t really need a woman to look after him. But Molly must have seen something pathetic in him.
Molly was a beautiful woman in her own right, and there wasn’t a man in the camp who hadn’t envied Ned. It was puzzling, but it could have explained why Ned was lying slumped on the sand with a bashed-in skull. It could have explained why someone had hated him enough to kill him.
Without lifting a finger Ned had won Molly’s love. That could make some other guy as mad as a caged hyena--the wrong sort of other guy. Even a small man could have shattered Ned’s skull, but the prints on the sand were big.
How many men in the camp wore size-twelve shoes? That was the sixty-four dollar question, and it hung in the shimmering air between Harry and myself like an unspoken challenge. We could almost see the curve of the big question mark suspended in the dazzle.
I thought awhile, looking at Harry. Then I took a long, deep breath and said, “We’d better talk it over with Bill Seaton first. If it gets around too fast those footprints will be trampled flat. And if tempers start rising anything could happen.”
Harry nodded. Bill was the kind of guy you could depend on in an emergency. Cool, poised, efficient, with an air of authority that commanded respect. He could be pigheaded at times, but his sense of justice was as keen as a whip.
Harry and I walked very quietly across a stretch of tumbled sand and halted at the door to Bill’s shack. Bill was a bachelor and we knew there’d be no woman inside to put her foot down and tell him he’d be a fool to act as a lawman. Or would there be? We had to chance it.
Law-enforcement is a thankless job whether on Earth or on Mars. That’s why it attracts the worst--and the best. If you’re a power-drunk sadist you’ll take the job just for the pleasure it gives you. But if you’re really interested in keeping violence within bounds so that fairly decent lads get a fighting chance to build for the future, you’ll take the job with no thought of reward beyond the simple satisfaction of lending a helping hand.
Bill Seaton was such a man, even if he did enjoy the limelight and liked to be in a position of command.
“Come on, Harry,” I said. “We may as well wake him up and get it over with.”
We went into the shack. Bill was sleeping on the floor with his long legs drawn up. His mouth was open and he was snoring lustily. I couldn’t help thinking how much he looked like an overgrown grasshopper. But that was just a first impression springing from overwrought nerves.
I bent down and shook Bill awake. I grabbed his arm and shook him until his jaw snapped shut and he shot up straight, suddenly galvanized. Instantly the grotesque aspect fell from him. Dignity came upon him and enveloped him like a cloak.
“Ned, you say? The poor little cuss! So help me--if I get my hands on the rat who did it I’ll roast him over a slow fire!”
He got up, staggered to an equipment locker, and took out a sun helmet and a pair of shorts. He dressed quickly, swearing constantly and staring out the door at the bright dawn glow as if he wanted to send both of his fists crashing into the first suspicious guy to cross his path.
“We can’t have those footprints trampled,” he muttered. “There are a lot of dumb bastards here who don’t know the first thing about keeping pointers intact. Those prints may be the only thing we’ll have to go on.”
“Just the three of us can handle it, Bill,” I said. “When you decide what should be done we can wake the others.”
Bill nodded. “Keeping it quiet is the important thing. We’ll carry him back here. When we break the news I want that body out of sight.”
Harry and Bill and I--we took another walk in the sun. I looked at Harry, and the greenish tinge which had crept into his face gave me a jolt. He’s taking this pretty hard, I thought. If I hadn’t known him so well I might have jumped to an ugly conclusion. But I just couldn’t imagine Harry quarreling with Ned over Molly.
How was I taking it myself? I raised my hand and looked at it. There was no tremor. Nerves steady, brain clear. No pleasure in enforcing the law--pass that buck to Bill. But there was a gruesome job ahead, and I was standing up to it as well as could be expected.
Ever try lifting a corpse? The corpse of a stranger is easier to lift than the corpse of a man you’ve known and liked. Harry and I lifted him together. Between us the dead weight didn’t seem too intolerable--not at first. But it quickly became a terrible, heavy limpness that dragged at our arms like some soggy log dredged up from the dark waters of the canal.
We carried him into the shack and eased him down on the floor. His head fell back and his eyes lolled.
Death is always shameful. It strips away all human reticences and makes a mockery of human dignity and man’s rebellion against the cruelty of fate.
For a moment we stood staring down at all that was left of Ned. I looked at Bill. “How many men in the camp wear number-twelve shoes?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
All this time we hadn’t mentioned Larsen. Not one word about Larsen, not one spoken word. Cheating, yes. Lying, and treacherous disloyalty, and viciousness, and spite. Fights around the campfires at midnight, battered faces and broken wrists and a cursing that never ceased. All that we could blame on Larsen. But a harmless little guy lying dead by a well in a spreading pool of blood--that was an outrage that stopped us dead in our legend-making tracks.
There is something in the human mind which recoils from too outrageous a deception. How wonderful it would have been to say, “Larsen was here again last night. He found a little guy who had never harmed anyone standing by a well in the moonlight. Just for sheer delight he decided to kill the little guy right then and there.” Just to add luster to the legend, just to send a thrill of excitement about the camp.
No, that would have been the lie colossal which no sane man could have quite believed.
Something happened then to further unnerve us.
The most disturbing sound you can hear on Mars is the whispering. Usually it begins as a barely audible murmur and swells in volume with every shift of the wind. But now it started off high pitched and insistent and did not stop.
It was the whispering of a dying race. The Martians are as elusive as elves and all the pitiless logic of science had failed to draw them forth into the sunlight to stand before men in uncompromising arrogance as peers of the human race.
That failure was a tragedy in itself. If man’s supremacy is to be challenged at all let it be by a creature of flesh-and-blood, a big-brained biped who must kill to live. Better that by far than a ghostly flickering in the deepening dusk, a whispering and a flapping and a long-drawn sighing prophesying death.
Oh, the Martians were real enough. A flitting vampire bat is real, or a stinging ray in the depths of a blue lagoon. But who could point to a Martian and say, “I have seen you plain, in broad daylight. I have looked into your owlish eyes and watched you go flitting over the sand on your thin, stalklike legs? I know there is nothing mysterious about you. You are like a water insect skimming the surface of a pond in a familiar meadow on Earth. You are quick and alert, but no match for a man. You are no more than an interesting insect.”
Who could say that, when there were ruins buried deep beneath the sand to give the lie to any such idea. First the ruins, and then the Martians themselves, always elusive, gnomelike, goblinlike, flitting away into the dissolving dusk.
You’re a comparative archaeologist and you’re on Mars with the first batch of rugged youngsters to come tumbling out of a spaceship with stardust in their eyes. You see those youngsters digging wells and sweating in the desert. You see the prefabricated housing units go up, the tangle of machinery, the camp sites growing lusty with midnight brawls and skull-cracking escapades. You see the towns in the desert, the law-enforcement committees, the camp followers, the reform fanatics.
You’re a sober-minded scholar, so you start digging in the ruins. You bring up odd-looking cylinders, rolls of threaded film, instruments of science so complex they make you giddy.
You wonder about the Martians--what they were like when they were a young and proud race. If you’re an archaeologist you wonder. But Bill and I--we were youngsters still. Oh, sure, we were in our thirties, but who would have suspected that? Bill looked twenty-seven and I hadn’t a gray hair in my head.
Bill nodded at Harry. “You’d better stay here. Tom and I will be asking some pointed questions, and our first move will depend on the answers we get. Don’t let anyone come snooping around this shack. If anyone sticks his head in and starts to turn ugly, warn him just once--then shoot to kill.” He handed Harry a gun.
Harry nodded grimly and settled himself on the floor close to Ned. For the first time since I’d known him, Harry looked completely sure of himself.
As we emerged from the shack the whispering was so loud the entire camp had been placed on the alert. There would be no need for us to go into shack after shack, watching surprise and shock come into their eyes.
A dozen or more men were between Bill’s shack and the well. They were staring grimly at the dawn, as if they could already see blood on the sky, spilling over on the sand and spreading out in a sinister pool at their feet. A mirage-like pool mirroring their own hidden forebodings, mirroring a knotted rope and the straining shoulders of men too vengeful to know the meaning of restraint.
Jim Kenny stood apart and alone, about forty feet from the well, staring straight at us. His shirt was open at the throat, exposing a patch of hairy chest, and his big hands were wedged deeply into his belt. He stood about six feet three, very powerful, and with large feet.