Aside from scrub brush, cactus and tumbleweed, there was no sign of anything living in the desert. Afar off, two moving clouds of dust appeared, like huge dust devils. These came closer, and resolved into a pair of horses, running hell-bent for leather.
The two riders reined up before the sheer face of the cliff that stood baking in the glare of the sun. The tall man stood in the stirrups and surveyed the stretch of desert behind them and the brooding wall ahead. His thin lips drew tight.
"Get down," he told the other. "We're gonna lose the horses here. We'll hike to that pueblo on foot."
The other rider looked at him astounded, as if he had taken leave of his senses.
"Lose the horses?" she repeated in a numb voice. "We're in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere else, and there is a gang of stage robbers on our trail. . . "
Billy Doomsday cut the girl off. "Exactly," he said. "So we end the trail - - . . here. That cliff used ta be an Injun pueblo. . . there are a couple dozen dwelling places up there. . . see those dark spots? There's nobody there now . . . no cookfires or decorations, an' it's silent as the grave. Get off your horse and we'll send ‘em both galloping away. If we make it to the dwellings we can hide out in one of ‘em and hope the gang don't see us. We got water to hold us for a few days."
"But we. . . the horses. . . "
"We're barely outrunnin' them now," Billy told her. "We keep runnin', and they'll catch us sooner or later. This is our best hope of losin' them, but if we leave the horses at the cliff, they'll be a dead giveaway."
The girl's face twisted with uncertainty, but she complied. Billy Doomsday slid off of his mount, took a few things from the saddlebags and placed them in a pouch he wore, then swatted it with his hat and yelled like the devil. The horse took off running and its partner did the same. The man bent and used his hat to swipe away any prints that would tell their pursuers that they had stopped here.
"See that carved path?" he pointed. "It's a natural ledge that leads from the ground up to the pueblo levels. We're gonna climb that. . . shouldn't be hard."
"Not hard?" the young woman echoed, shaking out her long red hair. "It's narrow enough that I couldn't straddle it in my skirts, it twists like a staircase and look. . . there's a gap in it almost at the top!"
"Not a problem if you're wearin' jeans 'stead a' those skirts," he gritted. "We'll handle the gap when we get to it."
He stepped over to where the ledge was only about a head higher than himself off the desert floor. His arms were well muscled, long and lanky enough to reach up, grasp some rock outcrops and haul himself up. The girl couldn't reach that high, so he caught her forearms and pulled her up kicking.
"My dress! You've torn the sleeve seams and my skirts and gloves are caked with dust." She looked at his dark eyes and backtracked. "I'm sorry. I know we're in a desperate situation. . . I can't worry about my clothes, even if they did cost '-. . . . Well, just never mind."
Billy Doomsday hid a grin and started walking up the ledge, as calmly as if he trod a street in a large city. The girl called out.
"Wait! Stay close to me. . . I can barely keep my balance. The ledge is only three or four feet wide!"
"Take off those heeled boots, you'll find it easier goin'. Don't drop ‘em, though. . . the robbers find ‘em it'll tell ‘em right where we are."
It was difficult on the narrow uphill path to get her boots off. She almost pitched overboard, till Doomsday steadied her with a grip on her shoulders.
They passed the first of the black-mouthed recesses, abandoned hovels where the people had once lived. Neither said a word until they reached the gap. The trail had collapsed had some time in the path, so that it fell away. There was an empty space five or six feet across that they had to navigate.
Doomsday flattened himself against the bluff wall and stretched a leg until the toe of his boot barely scraped the far ledge. Loose pebbles scuttled underfoot, and fell. Gripping the sheer wall as well as he could, he swung himself across.
When he was standing on the ledge, Billy reached back for the girl. She glanced down, and moved back a step.
"Damn it, girl!" Billy cursed at her. "Just reach out an' grab my hand! I won't drop ya. . . "I got a good grip over here," he lied.
He had to admire the way she moved reluctantly forward, neither looking down again nor shutting her eyes. She held onto a twisted root that grew out of the wall and stretched her arm as far as she could out over the drop. Billy had to lean out to get her, but as soon as he did he caught her gloved hand and swung her, kicking, over the gap.
She let out a startled yell that was not a scream and stifled that when she found solid footing under her again.
"Let's get ourselves inside that cave," Billy advised. "Sun's goin' down soon an' them riders can't be too far behind.
It was dark as pitch inside the cave. Billy made out a few broken bits of pottery and rotted blankets before the view into the cave became black with shadows. The redheaded girl leaned in.
"I don't imagine we can have a light?"
"Not unless you want to signal the killers where we are." He dropped his bag to the rock floor. "We might have to stay the night in here. I got a blanket you can use, an' a couple days' supply of rations. I'll take the night watch."
"Thank you." The girl hesitated, then essayed a weak smile. "I do understand that you saved my life, sir." Removing her gloves, she extended a prim hand and shook his. "My name is Rebecca Strong."
The cowboy shook her hand in a rough grip. "Handle's Billy Doomsday," he said flatly. He did not tell her that it wasn't only her life that he'd saved. The robbers would keep her alive. . . until they were done with her.
The pale eyes widened for an instant. "Doomsday?"
"My father took the name legally. Preacher man. The Reverend Josiah Doomsday."
"That is a hell of a name. . . literally!. . . to be stuck with." Rebecca looked at him in awe. "Unless you are a '-. . . . preacher man, too?"
Kneeling to open the bag, he replied, "No, don't hold with that fire an' brimstone stuff myself. I just travel, makin' do best I can."
Rebecca knelt to bring her eyes level with his. "Well, you certainly made do rather well with those robbers, Mr Doomsday. When they killed the stagecoach drivers and started on the passengers I believed it was the end of all of us. I didn't expect you to shoot back and ride off with me on the dead men's horses." She held out her bare, trembling hand. "I'm still shaking!"
Billy threw her a hard grin. "Brush with death'll do that to ya." He peered around the cave as far as he could see, which was not far. "There's nothin' we can do now but wait. Whyn't you get some rest whilst I keep an eye peeled?"
She took up the blanket he had given her, and accepted a handful of rations. . . dried beef mostly.
"If it don't offend you, I'm usin' my clothes for a bed and sleepin' in my longjohns. You're welcome to do the same. Rocks are a mite hard."
"I. . . " she started, held and released a breath. "I'm not wearing petticoats. It's so stifling hot on the stagecoaches . . . . "
"Move further back into the cave," he told her. "Worse comes to worst, maybe they won't see you."
"That will be. . . " but her voice caught on the last word, " . . . fine."
She frowned. It was deepsea-black back there. She did as she was told, trusting to his knowledge and his undoubted experience in situations like this. The tunnel twisted suddenly to her left. She stepped into utter blackness and silence, where none of the waning sunlight seeped in. For a moment, she believed she saw something. . . a pale white form that moved . . . but she shook her head and it was not there. She decided it had been a spot in her vision from the fading light and moved ahead, feeling her way along the wall.
A large boulder that partly blocked the passage, and she went a few feet beyond that to lay the blanket on the dusty, pebbly floor. She thought she was going to be too nervous to rest. . . but the black stillness overwhelmed her and she was soon sleeping soundly.
Rebecca startled awake in profound darkness, a lingering memory of a wet noise in her mind. She dismissed it as dream, and crept to the boulder and peered over it.
It was night. Billy Doomsday crouched, still as stone, in the cave mouth, his back to her. There was no moon, but more and brighter stars than she'd ever seen in the sky limned the lean cowboy in light.
Brushing auburn hair away from her face, she went on hands and knees and bare feet back to her blanket. Her feet ached. Lying back down Rebecca was amazed at how safe she felt. Billy Doomsday was a crude cowboy, unrefined compared to her people back East, but she knew that he was in his own way a gentleman. A westerner with a sense of what she could only call chivalry.
"Rebecca!" came his rough whisper. "I'm climbin' down. It's dark enough back there, and with that bend in the tunnel we might be able to risk a small fire."
She didn't see him in the dark. "Where are you going?"
"I got some Lucifer matches. Gonna sneak out an' find something to burn."
She sat up, hugged her shoulders. "Hurry back."
When the cowboy had vanished into the shadows outside the cave, Rebecca glanced about her, feeling more timorous than she had since the robbery. Still, she was exhausted enough to fall back asleep almost at once. She had no cares for pale phantoms, wet noises, nor the noxious smells that began sifting into her cave from below.
There wasn't much in the area surrounding the pueblo but rock, sand and sagebrush. The latter was dry. If he gathered enough of it they would have a nice little fire.
Suddenly, Billy's ears twitched. He had heard something that was not the desert wind nor the distant cawing of carrion birds. Horse's hoofbeats and vague voices calling out. He was too far away to make out the words, but he realized that the stage robbers had caught up to them.
Billy abandoned the sagebrush and made for the cliff face, seeking what cover he could from boulders and depressions in the ground. He had to move fast; he did not want to be caught scaling the rock walls when the outlaws found him. He hid in the rocks at the cliff's base until he was sure that their pursuers were still a good distance off, then turned and climbed. Without the girl to slow him, he scrambled up the wall like a rock lizard.
Making the cave mouth, he halted just within, surveyed the badlands around him. If he strained his ears he could still hear them, but they were not yet in sight. Good, he thought, grim-lipped. That meant they couldn't see him either. With luck, they'd take another direction, or disregard the empty pueblo as a possible hiding place.
Crouching, he drew his gun and cast a look back to the twist in the tunnel. Rebecca must be still sleeping. He didn't see anything moving or hear a sound. He only hoped that she didn't wake suddenly and do something to betray their presence.
The outlaws. . . five of them. . . had taken the way leading to the pueblo. He cursed them with one of his father's Hellish epithets. He drew a bead on their lead rider, but was hoping they'd ignore the rock face with its dark hollows.
No such luck. The leader pulled up and pointed up, almost directly at Billy. Two men fell from their mounts and ran for the wall, bent low to avoid bullets. They began clambering up. Now if only they ignored the cave because of the broken ledge that was the only way to reach it.
The men ducked into every hovel they passed. Coming back out empty-handed did not seem to deter them. Finally they reached the gap in the rock ledge. One man turned around to climb down; the other glanced at the lead rider below. The leader waved them on.
The outlaw who had started down yanked off his hat and hit the blank wall, cursing. His partner secured a root-grip and stretched his foot out over the break, not quite reaching the farther side. Below, the leader and the last two robbers got down off their horses.
Hell, thought Doomsday. There was nothing else for it now. He shot at the man who was trying to cross the gap. The outlaw let go to grab his shot chest, and fell. The other drew and fired back at Billy. Billy had to duck behind some rocks to avoid bullets.
This was no good. Billy couldn't fire from behind boulders or from in the cave mouth. All they had to do was lay down a covering fire until they could get across the break. Billy fired again, hit nothing, and retreated back into the cave.
" ‘Becca!" he yelled. "If you're sleepin' get up! Get further back in the cave!" He had some idea of using the inky blackness as a cover, but knew that that would work against him as well. The rising sun cast the robber in clear silhouette in the cave entrance. Billy shot him. A heartbeat, and the man fell forward.
He edged past the boulder. Rebecca was not there, but his blanket was. So was her fine skirt. He guessed she'd eventually took it off as a pillow.
"Rebecca!" he hissed, quiet as he could. She must have taken his advice and went back further in the cave. There was no reply. Had she gone too far back to hear him?
The floor of the cave was dusty and dirty, and there was no need to avoid a light now the robbers had their scent. Billy scratched one of his Lucifers and lit its small fire. Maybe Rebecca had left a trail in the dirt. He whisper-called her name again to no reply. She was either too far back or too scared to reveal herself, even to him.
A look at the floor surprised him. There were signs of a fight. The disturbance in the dust said that plainly. Rebecca's bare footprints told that she had been seized and led away by force. Whoever had taken her left no clear prints. There was something lying in the rocks, a soft, pallid mound of what looked like doughy flesh. It wasn't hers.
Who still lived in this age-haunted pueblo?
Billy extinguished the match, and did not risk calling out again as he trudged further into the deep folds of blackness. Halting to listen for the sounds of pursuit, he thought he heard something, but not from his back where the robbers would come. A hard wheezing sounded in front of him. A smell came into the dark air. . . a repulsive and evil smell, and grew so intense that he knew it must be close.
Another wheeze, followed by a squelch, told him that who- or whatever it was, it was right in front of him. He drew his gun and lit another Lucifer.
Billy froze, stared. He was facing a weird figure no more than four feet tall, doughy and with a pale, almost phosphorescent skin. Its mouth was a horrible gash in its noseless, earless head and the eyes. . . they were large, round and blindly black. Its pasty arms ended in three long, razor claws.
It was only by instinct that he fired. The rest of him was too paralyzed to do anything. The creature backed away from his fire, then took the bullet in its mid-section. It staggered, but only a little, and raked its claws at Billy.
No. . . not at Billy. It was trying to claw the match from his hand. It was blind, but it was still sensitive to light. Billy thrust his match at its ghastly face. The thing wheezed and fell back. It was bleeding, but its blood was not red. It was a pale, clear liquid.
That convinced Billy that it was no hermit or degenerate Indian. . . it wasn't even human. It turned to scuttle off, but Billy was able to shoot again. His slug hit its side, and a glob of whitish pulp was torn off. The creature was still running, melding into black.
Something whistled past his ear. He knew a near miss when he felt one. The three outlaws had caught up to him. Billy decided not to get into a gunfight in an enclosed, pitch-black tunnel. He saw a flare of waving light and realized that the men had brought torches. There was a small alcove in the far wall. Billy shifted into it, went flat against its side and held his breath.
The three robbers held their torches in front of them and didn't give the walls much glance as they barreled through the cave. They followed their own pool of light and vanished deeper into the interior.
If it were not for Rebecca, Billy would have fled, let the monsters and the gunmen deal with each other. He couldn't abandon the girl, though; she'd trusted him and he'd led her into a horror worse than outlaws. With any luck at all, the creatures of the cave would dispatch his human foes for him. . . but with his luck he'd probably end up fighting both of them.
He hadn't gone far, following the dim glow of their torchlight, when an echo of eerie screeches came from ahead. He heard curses, screams and gunfire. The creatures were attacking the intruders.
The sounds continued for a while, then died off. The red glow from the men's torches disappeared. Billy moved to the scene, judging it safe by the absence of sounds and that hideous smell. His foot hit something. He struck a Lucifer. The body of one of the men lie on the ground with a pool of red blood under him. There were other pools, of a clear pale liquid, and gobs of doughy flesh.
The footprints, though, showed that two of the robbers had been captured, like Rebecca, and led away. The creatures, whatever they were, naked though they were, were not animals. They held an evil intelligence in their misshapen heads.
Billy put out the Lucifer and went further into the cavern, his gun drawn and ready in his left hand. It wasn't hard to track the creatures and their captives; unless the tunnel split somewhere ahead, there was only one way he could go. The trail had taken a steep downward cant, and it wound like a spiral staircase as it descended. After a measureless time following it, with no sun or watch to keep track, he realized that they must be below the lowest level of the pueblo, plunging into the earth itself.
That wasn't good. It put him more and more in the creatures' element, and it made for a longer escape route back up.
Suddenly, he stood stock still. Weird sounds echoed from ahead and below. First he heard a massive squelching sound like something immense pushing itself up out of deeper recesses. Then a long howl. . . a wavering, mournful sort of howl like no animal or human ever made. Finally, a rising chorus of chanting voices, hoarse and incomprehensible. Billy knew the languages of the Pueblo Indians; that was not what he heard. Those inchoate imprecations were in a language older than any race of man, of a kind that had never descended from apes.
Rebecca faced a doom worse than the Reverend's brimstone damnation. Now Billy's saddlebags seemed a mile away, but the reverse side of his gunbelt held a few of the special bullets; although he was not sure even those would be of use against what prevailed here. The bullets, with the arcane and shamanic sigils he had cut into their noses, might hurt the pale creatures, but not the thing they worshipped.
The next hewn chamber he entered was vast, domed, but dark enough that he could barely make out the ceiling. Stalagmites reared up around him like the fangs of a colossus. Similarly sharp-toothed stactites dripped ominously from above him. There was only one way out of the vault other than the way he had come in, and that was barred with a heavy stone door.
Billy leaned on the great rectangle of rock. It did not budge. His match burnt his fingertips and was snuffed. He knew he was running low on them, and a fight would be difficult if he had to hold up a light to the blinding dark, but he struck another, moved around the door and found a rough wood-and-cord lever. Working it, he opened the great door.
The door had concealed a tunnel which, after a few yards of progress, Billy realized was leading him down a long, slow spiraled ramp. There was a wan light, though: a thin vein of some kind of scintillant mineral ran through the black rock of the sides. After a few twists of the tunnel it grew brighter, until finally he no longer needed Lucifer-light. He knew that by then he must be beneath the pueblo, under the flat desert floor itself.
Suddenly, as he rounded a turn, a brighter glow flared from ahead of him. Round Shadows shifted and danced on the cave walls. The tunnel descended no farther. There was only a round portal in front of him. Billy approached it, flattened himself against the wall and peered in like a timorous mouse.
He saw a vast pit where shadows flailed and weird wan figures cavorted wildly on ledges at different levels. Above it hung an immense bowl whose flaming contents lit the spaces below. And at the bottom of that pit . . . .
A form rose out of the subterranean dark. A white, amorphous thing of gelid slime and ooze. A primordial god, he thought, holding court in this antechamber of Hell. The pale beings worshipped it with waving white arms and obscenely dancing feet. And they worshipped it with. . . sacrifices. As he watched they hauled the writhing form of one of the gunmen to the edge and pitched him in. The man screamed as he plunged into the sluglike mass.
Where was Rebecca? She wasn't in the little knot of creatures who had thrown the man down to his doom. He didn't see her on any of the other levels. Then, looking down into the mass in the pit, he saw her. Rebecca had already been tossed to the monster.
She was caught and held, but not by arms or claws or even tentacles. Rebecca was partly embedded in the creature's white viscous mass, only her face, one arm and her bare legs kicking. It was absorbing her. Her mouth was half-covered, she could not scream, but her pale eyes were wide with terror.
Deep in the horror's colloidal bulk Billy saw other human forms. . . all of them desiccated, many of them mere skeletons.
Billy fired all the marked bullets in his gun into the thing, but it barely noticed them sinking into its mass. Billy thought fast of things he had learned from men, Native and white, of such horrors. Primal it was, and it would take something primal to destroy it. . . primal as fire!
His gunfire had attracted attention. Already the pale beings had started up the webwork of ledges, running and shambling toward him. They were slow, though.
He had time to reload his guns, but with ordinary lead. Nor did he waste time shooting at the creatures. Instead his slugs slammed into the great bowl above, and into the chains holding it aloft. When the first of the white beings attacked, he kicked them ruthlessly into their own pit. But then came a second wave, swarming and gibbering with inhuman rage.
Billy let loose four more shots at the cauldron before he was overwhelmed. They did not sever all the chains, but they did break one, so that the great burning pot tipped, and spilled its flaming contents into the pit. The mass was not immune to flame. Its slimed surface started on fire in one breath. A weird, blasphemous howling sounded from the monster.
The pale creatures panicked. They let go of Billy and ran back down the ledges, echoing their god's screams and scrambling to save it.
Billy ran after them. He reached a level where Rebecca's uncovered arm was in reach. She reflexively grasped his hand and her fingers tightened. It took all of Billy's strength but finally he pulled her free of the absorbing mass. Setting her down on the rock ledge he pointed the way he had descended.
"Run!" he rasped.
The girl did not need any further encouragement. They ran. The creatures did not pursue. They were madly, uselessly, trying to save their god, whose surface was now seared black and whose inner bulk was fast being consumed.
They finally reached the pueblo-cave where they had camped. By then the sun was reddening the Eastern horizon.
"Follow me down," Billy told her. "I'll get the robbers' horses, and we'll make tracks outta here. Those pale ones should be dead, but I'm not stickin' around to find out."
"What were they? And that '-. . . . thing!" Rebecca gasped. "Never '-. . . . something like that '-. . . . should never exist!"
"Survivals," Billy muttered, more to himself than to the girl. "The Indians speak about creatures and beings who lived on Earth long, long before human beings. They say some of ‘em survive, in dark, lost places and underground. The Indians shun those places. Must be why they abandoned that pueblo; it had openings to deeper in the earth than men want to go."
"I don't know how I will ever sleep again." The girl had been watching the ground; she looked up and met Billy's eyes. "You saved my life, and more than my life," she said husky-voiced. "But those things terrorized the bandits and scared me nearly out of my senses. How did you stay calm enough to fight them?"
His eyes were like flint, lips a tight line. He told her, "Experience. Wasn't the first time I'd fought somethin' like that."