As Jerry’s eyes fell on the creature’s head, he shuddered--for the face was nothing but bone, with dull-brown skin stretched taut over it. A skeleton that was alive!
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, black-whiskered, 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!”
His interference, his condescension, his whole hatefulness angered me. I could now no longer control my feeling. “Oh! You know, do you?” I sneered. “On such a subject as this you’re entitled to know, are you? Don’t make me laugh!” I finished insultingly. I was aroused. And I’m a big fellow, with no reason to fear ordinary men.
“Yes, I know!” came back his echoing, scratching voice.
“How do you know? Maybe you’ve been--?”
“Yes, I have!” he answered, his voice breaking to a squeak. “Take a good look at me, gentlemen. A good look.” He knew now that he held the center of the stage, that the moment was his. Slowly he raised an arm to remove that ridiculous hat. Again I jumped to my feet. For as his coat sleeve slipped down his forearm I saw nothing but bone supporting his hand. And the hand that then bared his head was a skeleton hand! Slowly the hat was lifted, but as quickly as light six able-bodied men were on their feet and half way to the door before we realized the cowardliness of it. We forced ourselves back inside the store very slowly, all of us rather ashamed of our ridiculous and childlike fear.
But it was all enough to make the blood curdle, with that live, dead thing sitting there by our fire. His face and skull were nothing but bone, the eyes deeply sunk into their sockets, the dull-brown skin like parchment in its tautness, drawn and shriveled down onto the nose and jaw. There were no cheeks. Just hollows. The mouth was a sharp slit beneath the flat nose. He was hideous.
“Come back and I’ll tell you my yarn,” he mocked, the slit that was his mouth opening a little to show us the empty, blackened gums. “I’ve been dead once,” he went on, getting a lot of satisfaction from the weirdness of the lie and from our fear, “and I came back. Come and sit down and I’ll explain why I’m this living skeleton.”
We came back slowly, and as I did I slipped my hand into my outside pocket where I had a revolver. I put my finger in on the trigger and got ready to use the vicious little thing. I was on edge and torn to pieces completely by the sight of the man, and I doubt not that had he made a move towards me my frayed nerves would have plugged him full of lead. I eyed my friends. They were in no better way than was I. Fright and horror stood on each face. Hammersly was worst. His hands were twitching, his eyes were like bright glass, his face bleached and drawn.
“I’ve quite a yarn to tell,” went on the skeleton in his awful voice. “I’ve had quite a life. A full life. I’ve taken my fun and my pleasure wherever I could. Maybe you’ll call me selfish and greedy, but I always used to believe that a man only passed this way once. Just like you believe,” he nodded to me, his neck muscles and jaws creaking. “Six years ago I came up into this country and got a job on a farm,” he went on, settling into his story. “Just an ordinary job. But I liked it because the farmer had a pretty little daughter of about sixteen or seventeen and as easy as could be. You may not believe it, but you can still find dames green enough to fall for the right story.
“This one did. I told her I was only out there for a time for my health. That I was rich back in the city, with a fine home and everything. She believed me. Little fool!” He chuckled as he said it, and my anger, mounting with his every devilish word, made the finger on the trigger in my pocket take a tighter crook to itself. “I asked her to skip with me,” the droning went on, “made her a lot of great promises, and she fell for it.” His dry jaw bones clanked and chattered as if he enjoyed the beastly recital of his achievement, while we sat gaping at him, believing either that the man must be mad, or that we were the mad ones, or dreaming.
“We slipped away one night,” continued the beast. “Went to the city. To a punk hotel. For three weeks we stayed there. Then one morning I told her I was going out for a shave. I was. I got the shave. But I hadn’t thought it worth while to tell her I wouldn’t be back. Well, she got back to the farm some way, though I don’t know--”
“What!” I shouted, springing before him. “What! You mean you left her there! After you’d taken her, you left her! And here you sit crowing over it! Gloating! Boasting! Why you--!” I lived in a rough country. Associated with rough men, heard their vicious language, but seldom used a strong word myself. But as I stood over that monster, utterly hating the beastly thing, all the vile oaths and prickly language of the countryside, no doubt buried in some unused cell in my brain, spilled from my tongue upon him. When I had lashed him as fiercely as I was able I cried: “Why don’t you come at me? Didn’t you hear what I called you? You beast! I’d like to riddle you!” I shouted, drawing my gun.
“Aw, sit down!” he jeered, waving his rattling hand at me. “You ain’t heard a thing yet. Let me finish. Well, she got back to the farm some way or another, and something over a year later I wandered into this country again too. I never could explain just why I came back. It was not altogether to see the girl. Her father was a little bit of a man and I began to remember what a meek and weak sheep he was. I got it into my head that it’d be fun to go back to his farm and rub it in. So I came.
“Her father was trying out a new corn planter right at the back door when I rounded the house and walked towards him. Then I saw, at once, that I had made a mistake. When he put his eyes on me his face went white and hard. He came down from the seat of that machine like a flash, and took hurried steps in the direction of a doublebarrelled gun leaning against the woodshed. They always were troubled with hawks and kept a gun handy. But there was an ax nearer to me than the gun was to him. I had to work fast but I made it all right. I grabbed that ax, jumped at him as he reached for the gun, and swung--once. His wife, and the girl too, saw it. Then I turned and ran.”
The gaunt brute before us slowly crossed one groaning knee above the other. We were all sitting again now. The perspiration rolled down my face. I held my gun trained upon him, and, though I now believed he was totally mad, because of a certain ring of truth in that empty voice, I sat fascinated. I looked at Seth. His jaw was hanging loose, his eyes bulging. Hammersly’s mouth was set in a tight clenched line, his eyes like fire in his blue, drawn face. I could not see the others.
“The telephone caught me,” continued our ghastly story-teller, “and in no time at all I was convicted and the date set for the hanging. When my time was pretty close a doctor or scientist fellow came to see me who said, ‘Blaggett, you’re slated to die. How much will you sell me your body for?’ If he didn’t say it that way he meant just that. And I said, ‘Nothing. I’ve no one to leave money to. What do you want with my body?’ And he told me, ‘I believe I can bring you back to life and health, provided they don’t snap your neck when they drop you.’ ‘Oh, you’re one of those guys, are you?’ I said then. ‘All right, hop to it. If you can do it I’ll be much obliged. Then I can go back on that farm and do a little more ax swinging!’” Again came his horrible chuckle, again I mopped my brow.
“So we made our plans,” he went on, pleased with our discomfiture and our despising of him. “Next day some chap came to see me, pretending he was my brother. And I carried out my part of it by cursing him at first and then begging him to give me decent burial. So he went away, and, I suppose, received permission to get me right after I was cut down.