Their way led through tangled growths of trees and vines that were like unrea_hings of a dream. Unreal they were, too, in their strange degree o_ivingness, for there were snaky tendrils that drew back as if in fear a_heir approach and stalks that folded great, thorny leaves protectingly abou_ulpy centers at the first touch of a hand. The world of vegetation seeme_trangely sentient and aware of their approach. Only the leprous-white tree_emained motionless; their red-veined trunks towered high in air, and the su_f late afternoon shot slantingly through a leafy roof overhead.
Twice Chet let the others go on ahead while he slipped silently into som_ocky concealment and watched with staring, anxious eyes back along thei_rail. But the little stream's gurgling whisper was the only voice, and in al_he weird jungle there was no movement but for the unfolding of the vegetatio_here they had passed.
"Nerves!" he reproached himself. "You're getting jumpy, and that won't do."
But once more he let the others climb on while he stepped quickly behind _rojecting rock over which he could look.
Again there was silence; again the leaves unfolded their thorny wrapping_hile vermiform tendrils crept across the ground or reached tentatively int_he air. And then, while the silence was unbroken, while no evidence cam_hrough his feeble, human senses, something approached.
Neither sight nor sound betrayed it—this something, that came noiselessl_fter—but a tell-tale plant whipped its leaves into their former wrapping; _ine drew its hanging clusters of flowers sharply into the air. The unseein_atchers of the forest had sensed what was unheard and unseen, and Chet kne_hat his own inner warning had been true.
He waited to see this mysterious pursuer come into view; and after waiting i_ain he realized the folly of thinking himself concealed. He glanced abou_im; every plant was drawn tightly upon itself. With silent voices they wer_roclaiming his hiding place, warning this other to wait, telling him tha_omeone was hidden here.
Chet's face, despite his apprehension, drew into a whimsical, silent grin. "N_hance to ambush him, whoever he is or whatever it is," he told himself. "Bu_hat works two ways: he can't jump us when we're prepared; not in daylight, anyway."
And he asked himself a question he could not answer: "I wonder," he whispere_oftly, "—I wonder what these plants will do at night!"
Almost they could see the swift descent of the sun. Each flashing glint o_ight through the dense growth came from lower down toward the invisibl_orizon. It shone at last where Chet cast anxious glances about upon a moun_f rocks.
Rough blocks of tremendous size had been left here from some seismi_isturbance. Like the ruins of a castle they were heaped high in air. Even th_ree growths stopped at their base, and above them was an opening in the roo_f tangled branches and leaves—a rough circle of clear, blue sky.
"How about making camp?" Chet asked. "This place looks good to me. I woul_ust as soon be up off the ground a bit."
Harkness looked at the pile of rocks; glanced once toward the sun. "Right!" h_greed. "This will do for our first camp."
"You've named it," Chet told him as he scrambled to the top of a great block.
He extended a hand to Diane, standing tired and breathless at its side.
"Welcome to First Camp!" he told her. "Take this elevator for the first te_loors."
He drew her up to the top of the block. Harkness joined them, and Diane, though she tried to smile in response to Chet, did not refuse their help i_aking the ascent; the day's experiences had told on all of them.
Thirty or forty feet above the ground was Chet's estimate. From the top o_heir little fort they watched the shadows of night sweep swiftly down. Scru_ree growths whose roots had anchored among the rocks gave them shelter, whil_ines and mosses softened the hard outlines of the labyrinth of stones.
Chet undid the package of meat and passed it out freely. There had bee_curryings and rustlings in the jungle growth that had reassured him in th_atter of food. Darkness fell as they ate; then it gave way to a new flood o_ight.
Golden light from a monstrous moon! It sent searching fingers through rifts i_he leafy roof, then poured itself over the edge of the opening above in _ascade of glory. And, though each one of the four raised his eyes toward tha_istant globe and knew it for the Earth, no word was said; they ate their foo_n silence while the silent night wrapped them about.
Still in silence they prepared for the night. Chet and Harkness improvised _ed for Diane in the shelter of a sheer-rising rock. They tore off pieces o_oss and stripped leaves from the climbing vines to make a mattress for her; then withdrew with Kreiss to a short distance while Chet told them of hi_uspicions.
"Six hours of night," he said at last; "that means two hours for each of us.
We'll take turns standing guard."
Harkness insisted upon being first. Chet flipped a coin with Kreiss and dre_he last turn of guard duty. He stretched himself out on a bit of ground wher_egetation had gained a foothold among the rocks.
"It's going to take me a while to get used to these short days," he said. "Si_ours of daylight; six hours of night. This is a funny, little world—but it'_he only one we've got."
The night air was softly warm; the day had been hard on muscles and nerves.
Chet stared toward the glorious ball of light that was their moon. There wer_en and women there who were going about their normal affairs. Ships wer_oaring through the air at their appointed levels; their pilots were checkin_heir courses, laughing, joking.
Chet resolutely withdrew his eyes. Think? Hell, no! That was one thing that h_ust not do. He threw one arm across his eyes to shut out the light tha_rought visions of a world he would never see again—that emphasized the utte_opelessness of their position… . His next conscious sensation was of hi_houlder being shaken, while the hushed voice of Doctor Kreiss said:
"Your turn now, Herr Bullard; four hours have you slept."
From Kreiss, Chet took the pistol with its seven precious shells. "All quiet,"
Kreiss told him as he prepared to take Chet's place on the soft leaves;
"strange, flying things have I seen, but they do not come near. And of you_ysterious pursuer we have seen nothing. You imagined it, perhaps."
"I might have imagined it," Chet answered, "but don't try to tell me that th_lants did. I'll give this vegetation credit for some damned uncanny power_ut not for imagination—I draw the line there."
He looked toward the highest point of rock and shook his head. "Too plain _arget if I'm up there," he argued, and took up his position in the shadow_nstead.
Once he moved cautiously toward the place they had prepared for Diane. She wa_reathing softly and regularly. And on the rock at her side, with only hi_acket for a bed, lay Harkness. Their hands were clasped, and Chet knew tha_he girl slept peacefully in the assurance of that touch.
"They don't make 'em any finer!" he was telling himself, and at the sam_oment he stiffened abruptly to attention.
Something was moving! Through and above the hushed noises of the night ha_ome a gliding sound. It was an indescribable sound, too elusive fo_dentification; and Chet, in the next instant, could not be sure of it_eality. He did not call, but swung alertly back on guard and slipped fro_hadow to shadow as he made his way across the welter of rocks.
He stopped at last in strained listening to the silent night. One hand upon _reat stone block at his side steadied his body in tense, poise_oncentration.
From afar came a whistling note whose thin keenness was mingled with a squea_f fright: some marauder of the night had found its prey. From the leaf_anopy above him voices whispered as the night wind set a myriad leaves i_otion. The thousand tiny sounds that blend to make the silence of the dark!
These he heard, and nothing more, while he forced himself to listen beyon_hem. He followed with his eyes the creeping flood of Earth-light that cam_lantingly now through the opening above to half-illumine this rocky world; and then, in the far margin of that light he found something on which his eye_ocused sharply—something that moved!
Walt!—Kreiss—he must arouse them! A shout of alarm was in his throat—a shou_hat was never uttered. For, from the darkness at his back—not where thi_oving thing had been disclosed by the friendly Earth-light, but from th_lace he had just left—came a scream of pure terror. It was the shockin_cream of a person roused from sleep in utter fright, and the voice was tha_f Diane.
"Walter!" she cried! "Walt!" There were other words that ended in _trangling, choking sound, while a hoarse shout from Harkness merged into _iscord that rang horribly through the still night.
Chet was racing across the rocks; the pistol was in his hand. What fearfu_hing would he face? What was it that had attacked? He forced his leaden fee_o carry him on in a succession of wild leaps. Forgotten was the menace behin_im, although he half saw, half sensed, a shadow that moved faster than h_long the upper rocks. He thought only of the unknown horror that was ahead, that had drawn that despairing shriek from the brave lips of Diane. The fe_econds of his crossing were an age in length.
One last spring, one vivid instant while the Earth-light marked in shar_istinctness the figure of a leaping man! It was Harkness, throwing himsel_nto the air, trying vainly to reach the struggling form of Diane Delacouer.
She was held high above his head, and she was wrapped in the coils of _onster serpent—coils that finished in a smoothly-rounded end. And Chet kne_n that instant of horror that the thing was headless!
He was raising his pistol to fire; the long moments that seemed never to en_ere in actuality an instant. Where should he aim? He must not injure Diane.
From the high rocks beside him came a glint of light, a straight line o_eflected brilliance as from a poised and slender shaft. It moved, it flashe_ownward, it hissed angrily as it passed close to Chet's head. It went on, _pear like a flash of light—on and down, to drive sharply into the body o_hat serpent shape! And the coils, at that blow, relaxed, while the figure o_iane Delacouer fell limply to the outstretched, cushioning arms of the ma_elow… .
Had the weapon been thrown with uncanny accuracy, or had it been meant fo_im? Chet could not be sure. But he knew that before him Walt Harkness wa_ending protectingly above the unconscious figure of a girl, while above an_bout the two there flailed a terrible, headless thing that beat the rock_ith sledge-hammer blows. It struck Harkness once and sent him staggering, an_nce it came close to Chet so that his hands closed upon it for an instant.
And with the touch he knew that this serpent was no animal shape, but worse—_reeping tendril from some flesh-eating horror of the vegetable world.
He dashed in beside Walt; he saw Kreiss hurrying across the rocks. They ha_iane safely out of reach of the threshing, striking thing before th_cientist arrived.
The spear that had passed close to Chet had pinned this deadly thing to earth; it tore loose as they watched, and the wounded tendril, with the spear stil_anging from its side, slid swiftly down the slope and into the darkness a_he foot of the rocks.
Even the calm preciseness of Herr Kreiss was shattered by the attack. In _onfusion of words he stammered questions that went unanswered. Chet thrus_is pistol into Harkness' hands and was off down the rocky slope toward th_prings where they had got water for their evening meal. A rolled leaf made _up that he held carefully while he climbed back. A few minutes later th_allid face of Diane showed a faint flush, while she drew a choking breath.
Harkness held the girl's head in his arms; he was uttering words of endearmen_hat were mingled with vicious curses for the thing that had escaped.
"Never mind that," argued Chet; "that one won't bother us again, and afte_his we will be on guard. But here is something to wonder about. What abou_his spear? Where did it come from?"
Harkness had eyes only for Diane's tremulous smile. "I am all right, truly,"
she assured him. Only then did he turn in bewilderment to Chet.
"I thought you threw it! But of course not; you couldn't; we didn't have an_pears."
"No," said Chet; "I didn't throw it. I saw something moving over acros_here"—he pointed toward the farther rocks where he had been—"I was going t_all when Diane's scream beat me to it. But what I saw wasn't the thing tha_ttacked her. And if it was the same one who threw that spear he must hav_ome across here in a hurry. And that spear, by the way, came uncomfortabl_lose to my head. I'm not at all sure but it was meant for me."
Harkness released his arms from Diane, for she was now able to sit erect. H_icked up the crude bow that had been beside him and fitted an arrow to th_tring.
"I'll go and have a look," he promised grimly. But Chet held him back.
"You're not thinking straight; this shock has knocked you out of control. I_hat little stranger with the spear meant to help us there's no need o_unting him out; he doesn't seem anxious to show himself. And if he meant i_or me, he's still too good a shot to fool with in the dark. You stick her_ntil daylight."
"That is good advice," Herr Kreiss agreed. "The night, it will soon be gone."
He was looking at the leafy opening overhead where the golden light of _istant Earth was fading before the glow of approaching day.