From: The Fire People
When I recovered consciousness I found myself lying in the sand with
Mercer sitting beside me. It was still night. The tangled wreckage of our
airplane lay near by; evidently Mercer had carried me out of it.
I sat up.
"I'm all right," I said. "What happened?"
He grinned at me with relief.
"The damned engine stopped. I don't know what was the matter. You had the
light off. I couldn't see anything when we got down close."
He waved his hand toward the wrecked plane.
"It's done for," he added; "but I'm not hurt much. Are you?"
"No," I said. "I'm all right."
I climbed to my feet unsteadily; my head seemed about to split open.
"Garland's burning," he added.
Over the desert, some two or three miles away, the burning town could be
"What are we going to do?" Mercer asked after a moment.
I was pretty weak and badly bruised all over. Mercer seemed to have fared
better than I. We talked over our situation at length. Finally we decided
to rest where we were until daybreak. I would feel better then, and we
could start back on foot for Mantua and Frannie.
I lay down again--my head was going round like a top--and Mercer sat
beside me. It was pretty cold, but we were warmly dressed and not
uncomfortable. The fact that we were so close to the Mercutians--not much
over seven or eight miles--worried us a little. But we reasoned that we
were in no great danger. We could still see their light-ray standing
vertically in the air.
Occasionally it would swing slowly to one side or the other. Once it swung
toward us, but as its base was in a hollow, it was cut off by the higher
ground between as it swung down, and we knew it could not reach us from
After a while I fell asleep. When Mercer woke me up it was dawn.
"Let's get started," he said. "I'm hungry as the devil."
I felt much better now. I was hungry myself, and stiff, and chilled.
"You'll feel better walking," he added. "Come on. It'll take us a deuce of
a while over this sand."
We decided to strike for the railroad at its closest point to us. The
State automobile road to Cody ran along near the railroad, and we planned
to follow that up to Mantua.
After a last look at our plane, which was hopelessly demolished, we
started off, heading north of Garland. We had been walking along a few
minutes when Mercer suddenly gripped me by the arm. I followed the
direction of his glance. Another rocket was rising from the Mercutian
base. It was still dark enough for us to see its flare as it rose and
curved in a long, graceful arc. We stopped stock still and stood watching.
The rocket arched over to the north. As it came down we lost sight of it.
"That went into Mantua," said Mercer in a horrified whisper.
A moment later we saw, in the direction of Mantua, that brief, silent,
smokeless red and green flash. Then the sky lighted up a lurid red, and we
knew Mantua was burning.
We stood looking at each other for a time, too frightened and horrified
for words. The thing was not like modern warfare. It was uncanny in its
silent deadliness, and there seemed a surety about it that was appalling.
"We're cut off," said Mercer finally.
His face was white and his voice trembled.
We were both pretty much unnerved, but after a moment we got ourselves
together and talked calmly about what was best for us to do.
We concluded finally to go ahead to the road. We calculated we were not
over two miles from the nearest part of it. We would strike it about
halfway between Garland and Mantua, and we thought it just possible we
would find passing along it some refugees from the two towns. I couldn't
quite see how meeting them could help us any, unless we encountered some
vehicle that would give us a lift. However, the walking would be easier,
and when we got to the road we could decide which way to go--north to
Frannie, or south around Garland to Powell.
The sun was just rising when we started again. It took us nearly an hour
to reach the road. As far as we could see it was deserted. We stopped here
and held another consultation.
"It's easily twelve miles up to Frannie," I said, "and I don't believe
more than eight to Powell. Let's go that way. We can get down to Cody from
there. I guess there are still people left in Powell."
We started down the road toward Garland. It seemed the sensible thing to
do. We were both famished by now and thirsty also. I had an idea that,
since the fires in Garland were about burned out, there might be an
isolated house unharmed, where we could find food and water.
I sometimes wonder now at our temerity in venturing so calmly to face this
unknown danger. We were in the enemy's country--an enemy whose methods of
attacking us might at any moment prove a hundred times more efficacious
than they had so far. But we did not consider that then.
There was, indeed, nothing else we could have done advantageously. This
road we were on was the only one within twenty or thirty miles. To have
struck west from our wrecked plane--away from the Mercutians--would have
brought us to face a hundred miles or more of desert over to the
It was now broad daylight--and almost cloudless, as is usual in this
locality. Half an hour of walking brought us nearly to the outskirts of
Garland. There was less smoke all the time. We judged the fire must be
pretty well burned out by now. Behind us the smoke of Mantua, a much
larger town than Garland, rose in a great rolling cloud.
We were walking along, wondering what we should find ahead, when suddenly
behind Garland and off to the right we saw another huge cloud of smoke
"Powell!" ejaculated Mercer, coming to a dead stop in the road. "Good God,
they've got Powell, too!"
There was no doubt about it--the town of Powell was also in flames. We sat
down together then at the side of the road. We didn't quite know what else
to do. We were both faint. Our situation seemed every moment to be getting
worse; we appeared further from even comparative safety now than when we
left our plane at dawn.
There seemed nothing else to do now but go ahead into Garland, a distance
of only half a mile. There we might find food and water; and, thus
refreshed, we could start back north to cover the fifteen miles to
Garland, a few days before, was a town of about five hundred inhabitants;
but I do not suppose that, at the time of its destruction, there were more
than a score or two of people remaining in it.
We started off again, and within twenty minutes were among the smoldering
houses of the town. It consisted practically of only one street--the road
we were on--with the houses strung along it. The houses had been, most of
them, small frame structures. They were nothing now but smoldering heaps
of ashes with the chimneys left standing, like gaunt, silent sentinels. As
we passed on down the road we saw several twisted forms that we took for
the remains of human beings. It is unnecessary for me to describe them. We
hurried on, shuddering.
Our objective was the lower end of the town, for there, perhaps a quarter
of a mile off to one side with a branch road leading to it, we saw a
single house and out-buildings left standing. We turned down this road and
approached the house. It was a rather good-looking building of the
bungalow type with a wide-spreading porch. Beside it stood a long, low,
rectangular building we took to be a garage. There was an automobile
standing in the doorway, and behind it we caught the white gleam of an
"We're all right now," cried Mercer. "There's a car, and there's a plane
inside. One of them ought to run."
At this unexpected good fortune we were jubilant. We could get back to
Billings now in short order.
We climbed up the porch steps and entered the house. We did not call out,
for it seemed obvious that no one would be there after what had occurred
in Garland so near by.
"There must be something to eat here," I said. "Let's find out--and then
get back to Billings."
The big living room was empty, but there was no sign of disorder. A closed
door stood near at hand.
"That might be the way to the kitchen," I suggested. "Come on."
I pushed open the door and entered, with Mercer close behind me. It was a
bedroom. The bed stood over by a window. I stopped in horror, for on the
bed, hunched forward in a sitting position, was the body of a man!
With the first sudden shock of surprise over, we stopped to note details.
The man's hand, lying on the blanket, clutched a revolver. A mirror
directly across from him was shattered as though by a bullet. A small
bedroom chair was overturned near the center of the room.
"He--he isn't burned." Mercer spoke the words hardly above a whisper.
"Something else killed him--there's been a fight. They--"
A sudden panic seized me. I wanted to run--to do something--anything--that
would get me away from the nameless, silent terror that seemed all about.
"Come on," I whispered back. "God! Let's get out of here."
As we got out into the living room we heard slow, dragging footsteps on
the porch outside. We stopped again, shrinking back against the wall.
"They--they--it's--" Mercer's whispered words died away. We were both
terrified beyond the power of reasoning. The dragging footsteps came
closer--a sound that had in it nothing of human tread. Then we heard soft
voices--words that were unintelligible.
"It's the Mercutians," I found voice to whisper. "They--"
A figure appeared in the porch doorway, outlined against the light
behind--the figure of a short, squat man. He seemed to have on some sort
of white, furry garment. He was bareheaded, with hair falling to his
At the sight of him my terror suddenly left me. Here was an enemy I could
cope with. The dread fear of supernatural beings that had possessed me
With a shout to Mercer I dashed forward directly at the doorway. I think
the Mercutian had not yet seen us; he stood quite still, his body blocking
the full width of the doorway.
I let fly with my fist as I came up and hit him full in the face. At the
same instant my body struck his. He toppled backward and I went through
the doorway. I tripped over him on the porch outside and fell sprawling.
Before I could rise three other Mercutians fell upon me and pinned me
Mercer was right behind me in the doorway. I saw him pause an instant to
see what was happening. There seemed to be five Mercutians altogether. The
one I had hit lay quite still. Three others were holding me.
The fifth stood to one side, watching Mercer, but apparently inactive.
I saw Mercer hesitate. An expression of surprise came over his face. His
body swayed; he took a single step forward, half turned, and then fell in
a crumpled heap.
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