Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 25: The Goal, And Through It
It all happened in a moment of time, a moment, long--in seeming--as an hour. The girl’s revolver crackled, there behind him. Stern saw a little round bluish hole take shape in the obeah’s ear, and red drops start.
Then with a ghastly screaming, the Thing was upon him.
Out struck the engineer, with the rifle-barrel. All the force of his splendid muscles lay behind that blow. The Thing tried to dodge. But Stern had been too quick.
Even as it sprang, with talons clutching for the man’s throat, the steel barrel drove home on the jaw.
An unearthly, piercing yell split the forest air. Then Stern saw the obeah, his jaw hanging oddly awry, all loose and shattered, fall headlong in the path.
But before he could strike again, could batter in the base of the tough skull, a moan from Beatrice sent him to her aid.
“Oh, God!” he cried, and sank beside her on his knees.
On her forehead, as she lay gasping among the bushes, he saw an ugly welt.
“A stone? They’ve hit her with a stone! Killed her, perhaps?”
Kneeling there, up he snatched the revolver, and in a deadly fire he poured out the last spitting shots, pointblank in the faces of the crowding rabble.
Up he leaped. The rifle barrel flashed and glittered as he whirled it. Like a reaper, laying a clean swath behind him, the engineer mowed down a dozen of the beast-men.
Shrieks, grunts, snarls, mingled with his execrations.
Then fair into a jabbering ape-face he flung the bloodstained barrel. The face fell, faded, vanished, as hideous illusions fade in a dream.
And Stern, with a strength he never dreamed was his, caught up the fainting girl in his left arm, as easily as though she had been a child.
Still dragging the spear which pierced his right--his right that yet protected her a little--he ran.
Stones, darts, spears, clattered in about him. He heard the swish and tang of them; heard the leaves flutter as the missiles whirled through.
Struck? Was he struck again?
He knew not, nor cared. Only he thought of shielding Beatrice. Nothing but that, just that!
“The gate--oh, let me reach the gate! God! The gate--”
And all of a sudden, though how he could not tell, there he seemed to see the gate before him. Could it be? Or was that, too, a dream? A cruel, vicious mockery of his disordered mind?
Yes--the gate! It must be! He recognized the giant pine, in a moment of lucidity. Then everything began to dance again, to quiver in the mocking sunlight.
“The gate!” he gasped once more, and staggered on. Behind him, a little trail of blood-drops from his wounded arm fell on the trampled leaves.
Something struck his bent head. Through it a blinding pain darted. Thousands of beautiful and tiny lights of every color began to quiver, to leap and whirl.
“They’ve--set the building on fire!” thought he; yet all the while he knew it was impossible, he understood it was only an illusion.
He heard the rustle of the wind through the forest. It blent and mingled with a horrid tumult of grunts, of clicking cries, of gnashing teeth and little bestial cries.
“The--gate!” sobbed Stern, between hard-set teeth, and stumbled forward, ever forward, through the Horde.
To him, protectingly, he clasped the beautiful body in the tiger-skin.
Living? Was she living yet? A great, aching wonder filled him. Could he reach the stair with her, and bear her up it? Hurl back these devils? Save her, after all?
The pain had grown exquisite, in his head. Something seemed hammering there, with regular strokes--a red-hot sledge upon an anvil of white-hot steel.