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´╗┐Title: Cat and Mouse
Author: Williams, Ralph, -1959
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Cat and Mouse" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                              CAT AND MOUSE

                            BY RALPH WILLIAMS

                        Illustrated by van Dongen

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science
Fiction June 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


     _The Warden needed to have a certain very obnoxious pest
     eliminated ... and he knew just the pest-eradicator he needed...._


_The Harn first came to the Warden's attention through its effect on the
game population of an area in World 7 of the Warden's sector. A natural
ecology was being maintained on World 7 as a control for experimental
seedings of intelligent life-forms in other similar worlds. How the Harn
got there, the Warden never knew. In its free-moving larval state, the
Harn was a ticklike creature which might have sifted through a natural
inter-dimensional rift; or it might have come through as a hitchhiker on
some legitimate traveler, possibly even the Warden himself._

_In any event, it was there now. Free of natural enemies and
competition, it had expanded enormously. So far, the effect in the
control world was localized, but this would not be the case when the
Harn seeded. Prompt action was indicated._

_The Warden's inclination and training was in the direction of avoiding
direct intervention in the ecology of the worlds under his
jurisdiction, even in the field of predator control. He considered
introduction of natural enemies of the Harn from its own world, and
decided against it. That cure was as bad, if not worse, than the disease
itself._

_There was, however, in one adjacent world, a life-form not normally
associated with the Harn; but which analysis indicated would be inimical
to it, and reasonably amenable to control._

_It was worth trying, anyway._

       *       *       *       *       *

October 3rd, Ed Brown got up to the base cabin of his trap line with his
winter's outfit.

He hung an N. C. Company calendar on the wall and started marking off
the days.

October 8th, the hole into the other world opened.

In the meantime, of course, Ed had not been idle. All summer the cabin
had stood empty. He got his bedding, stove, and other cabin gear down
from the cache and made the place livable. The mice were thick, a good
fur sign, but a nuisance otherwise. Down in the cellar hole, when he
went to clear it out for the new spud crop, he found burrowings
everywhere.

Well, old Tom would take care of that in short order. Tom was a big,
black, bobtailed cat eleven years old who had lived with Ed since he was
a kitten. Not having any feline companionship to distract him, his only
interest was hunting mice. Generally he killed a lot more than he could
eat, racking the surplus in neat piles beside the trail, on the
doorstep, or on a slab in the cellar. He was the best mouser in interior
Alaska.

Ed propped the cellar hatch with a stick so old Tom could come and go as
he pleased, and went on about his chores, working with a methodical
efficiency that matched Tom's and went with his thinning gray hair and
forty years in the woods. He dug the spuds he had planted that spring.
He made a swing around his beaver lakes, tallying the blankets in each
house. He took the canoe and moved supplies to his upper cabin. He
harvested some fat mallards that had moved down on the river with the
coming of skim ice on the lakes. He bucked up firewood and stacked it to
move into camp with the first snow.

On the fifth morning, as he was going down to the boat landing with a
pail for water, he found the hole into the other world.

Ed had never seen a hole into another world, of course, nor even heard
of such a thing. He was as surprised as any one would naturally be to
find one not fifty feet from their front door.

Still, his experience had been all in the direction of believing what
his eyes told him. He had seen a lot of strange things in his life, and
one more didn't strain him too much. He stood stockstill where he had
first noticed the hole and studied it warily.

It was two steps off the trail to the left, right beside the old leaning
birch, a rectangular piece of scenery that did not fit. It looked to be,
as nearly as he could judge, about man-size, six by three. At the
bottom it was easy enough to see where this world left off and that one
began. On the left side the two worlds matched pretty well, but on the
right side there was a niggerhead in this world, the moss-covered relic
of a centuries old stump, while that world continued level, so that the
niggerhead was neatly sliced in two. Also, the vegetation was different,
mossy on this side, grassy on that.

On up around the hole, though, it was harder to tell. There was no
clear-cut line, just the difference in what you could see through it. In
the other world, the ground seemed to fall away, with low scrubby brush
in the foreground. Then, a mile or so away, there were rising hills with
hardwood forests of some kind, still green with summer, covering them.

Ed stepped cautiously to one side. The view through the hole narrowed,
as if it faced the trail squarely. He edged around the old birch to get
behind it, and from that side there was no hole, just the same old
Alaskan scenery, birch and rose bushes and spruce. From the front,
though, it was still there.

He cut an alder shoot about eight feet long, trimmed it, and poked it
through the hole. It went through easily enough. He prodded at the sod
in the other world, digging up small tufts. When he pulled the stick
back, some of the other world dirt was on the sharp end. It looked and
smelled just about like any dirt.

Old Tom came stretching out into the morning sun and stalked over to
investigate. After a careful inspection of the hole he settled down with
his paws tucked under him to watch. Ed took a flat round can from his
pocket, lined his lip frugally with snuff, and sat down on the up-ended
bucket to watch too. At the moment, that seemed the likeliest thing to
do.

       *       *       *       *       *

_It was nearly swarming time, the Harn had many things to preoccupy it,
but it spared one unit to watch the hole into the other world. So far,
nothing much had happened. A large biped had found the opening from the
other side. It had been joined by a smaller quadruped; but neither
showed any indication yet of coming through. The sun was shining through
the hole, a large young yellow sun, and the air was crisp, with sharp
interesting odors._

_The biped ejected a thin squirt of brown liquid through the hole--venom
of some sort, apparently. The Harn hastily drew back out of range._

       *       *       *       *       *

The hole into the other world stayed there, as unobtrusively fixed as if
it had been there since the beginning of time. Nothing came through, and
nothing moved in the other world but leaves stirring now and then with a
breeze, clouds drifting across the sky. Ed began to realize it was
getting late in the morning, and he had not yet had breakfast. He left
old Tom to watch the hole, got stiffly to his feet and went on down the
trail to get the pail of water he had started for. From the cabin door,
he could still see the hole into the other world. He kept one eye on it
while he cooked breakfast.

As he was finishing his second cup of coffee, he noticed the view into
the other world becoming duller, dimming in a peculiar fashion. He left
the dirty dishes and went over to look more closely. What was happening,
he found, was just that it was getting dark in the other world. The
effect was strange, much like looking out the door of a brightly lighted
room at dusk. The edges of the hole cast a very clearly marked shadow
now, and outside this shaft of sunlight the view faded, until a few
yards away it was impossible to make out any detail.

Presently the stars came out. Ed was not an astronomer, but he had a
woodsman's knowledge of the sky. He could find nothing familiar in any
of the stars he saw. In some way, that was more unsettling than the hole
itself had been.

After he had finished the dishes, he cut two gee-pole spruce, trimmed
them, and stuck one on each side of the hole. He got some thin thread he
used to tie beaver snares and wove it back and forth between the poles,
rigging a tin can alarm. It seemed likely someone or something had put
the hole there, it had not just happened. If anything came through, Ed
wanted to know about it. Just to make extra sure, he got some number
three traps and made a few blind sets in front of the hole.

Then he went back to his chores. Whatever was going to happen with the
hole would happen when it happened, and winter was still coming.

He set some babiche to soak for mending his snowshoes. He ran the net he
had set at the edge of the eddy for late silvers and took out two fish.
Old Tom had pretty well cleaned up the mice in the cellar hole, but they
were still burrowing around the sills of the lean-to. Ed took a shovel
and opened up a hole so Tom could get under the lean-to floor. He got
out his needles, palm, thread, and wax; and mended his winter moccasins.

Off and on, he checked the hole into the other world. There was nothing
but the slow progression of alien stars across the sky. Finally old Tom
grew bored and left to investigate the hole under the lean-to. Shortly
there were scutterings and squeakings as evidence that he, too, had got
back to business.

       *       *       *       *       *

Toward evening, Ed got to wondering how a living creature would take
transition into the other world. He had no intention of trying it
himself until he knew a lot more about it, but he thought he might be
able to scare up a surrogate. Out by the wood pile some live-traps were
piled under a spruce, from the time when Ed had been catching marten for
the Fish and Wildlife to transplant. One was still in pretty fair shape.
He patched it up and set it among the cottonwoods at the head of the
bar, where there were some rabbit trails.

When he went to bed it was still dark in the other world. He left the
cabin door ajar so he could see it from his bed and set his shotgun,
loaded with 00 buck, handy.

Nearing sixty, Ed was not a sound sleeper, even when he had nothing on
his mind. About ten it started to get light in the other world, and that
woke him up. He padded out to look, but there was no change, it looked
about the same as yesterday. He went back to bed.

The next morning there was a rabbit in the live-trap. With a pole, Ed
pushed the trap with the rabbit in it through into the other world and
watched. Nothing happened. After a while the rabbit began nibbling at
some spears of grass that pushed through the wire of the cage. Ed pulled
it back and examined the rabbit carefully. It seemed healthy and about
as happy as a rabbit could expect to be in a cage.

It did not get dark in the other world till about noon, that day; and
about seven, when it was dark in both worlds, Ed heard the jangle of the
tin can alarm, followed by the snap of one of the steel traps.

He took a flashlight and found a small hoofed animal, hardly bigger than
old Tom, rearing and bucking with a broken leg in the trap. It had sharp
little spike horns, only a few inches long, but mean. Ed got several
painful jabs before he got the animal tied up and out of the trap. He
restrung the alarm, then took his catch into the cabin to examine.

It was herbivorous and adult, from the looks of its teeth and hoofs,
though it only weighed about fifteen pounds. As an approximation, Ed
decided it was female. When he killed it and opened it up, at first
glance it looked reasonably familiar, on closer study less so.

The blood, anyway, was red; not blue or yellow or green; and the bones
were bones, just odd-shaped.

Ed cut off a slice of heart and tossed it to old Tom. The cat sniffed it
dubiously and then decided he liked it. He meowed for more. Ed gave it
to him and fried a small sliver of ham. It smelled and tasted fine, but
Ed contented himself with a single delicate nibble, pending further
developments. Anyway, it was beginning to look like a little exploration
would be feasible.

       *       *       *       *       *

_The Harn, also, was well-satisfied with the way things were going. It
had been a strain to pass up the juicy little quadruped in the cage, but
the inhabitants of the other world seemed shy, and the Harn did not wish
to frighten them. At least, it knew now that life could come through the
hole, and the small herbivore it had herded through confirmed that
passage in the opposite direction was equally possible--plus a gratis
demonstration of the other world's pitiful defenses. At swarming time,
the whole new world would be open to embryo Harn, as well as this world
it presently occupied._

_It looked like a really notable swarming. The Harn budded three more
planters on the forcing stem, to be ready to take full advantage of
it._

It got light in the other world at one in the morning that night. Ed had
the days there pretty well pegged now. They were roughly twenty-seven
hours, of which about thirteen hours were dark. Not too high a latitude,
apparently, and probably late summer by the looks of the vegetation.

He got up a little before daylight and looked at the rabbit and old Tom.
Both seemed to be doing nicely. Old Tom was hungry for more otherworld
meat. Ed gave it to him and made up a light pack. After some thought, he
took the .450 bear gun he used for back-up when guiding. Whatever he ran
into over there, the .450--a model 71 throwing a 400 grain slug at 2100
fps--should handle it.

The first step through into the other world was a queasy one, but it
turned out to be much the same as any other step. The only difference
was that now he was in the other world looking back. From this side, the
niggerhead at the threshold was sliced sharply, but it had been kicked
down a little when he came through, and what with shoving the cage
through and pulling it back, so that some clods of moss and dirt were
scattered in the other world. For some reason, that made Ed feel better,
it seemed to make the joining of the two worlds a little more permanent.

Still, it had come sudden, and it might go sudden. Ed went back into his
own world and got an ax, a saw, more ammunition, salt, a heavy sleeping
robe, a few other possibles. He brought them through and piled them in
the other world, covering them with a scrap of old tarp. He cut a couple
of poles, peeled them, and stuck them in the ground to mark the hole
from this side.

Then he looked around.

He stood on the shoulder of a hill, in a game trail that ran down toward
a stream below, in what seemed to be a fairly recent burn. There were
charred stumps, and the growth was small stuff, with some saplings
pushing up through. There was timber in the valley below, though, and on
the hills beyond, deciduous, somewhat like oak. South was where east had
been in his own world, and the sun seemed smaller, but brighter. The sky
was a very dark blue. He seemed lighter in this world, there was a
spring in his step he had not known for twenty years. He looked at his
compass. It checked with the direction of the sun.

He studied the trail. It had seen a lot of use, but less in recent
weeks. There were sharp hoof-prints of the animal he had caught, larger
hoof-prints, vague pad-marks of various sizes, but nothing that looked
human. The trail went under a charred tree trunk at a height that was
not comfortable for a man, and the spacing of the steps around the
gnarled roots of an old slump did not fit a man's stride.

He did not notice the Harn creature at all--which was understandable, it
was well camouflaged.

He worked circumspectly down the trail, staying a little off it,
studying tracks and droppings, noticing evidences of browsing on the
shrubs--mostly old--pausing to examine tufts of hair and an occasional
feather. Halfway down the slope he flushed a bird about ptarmigan-size,
grayish brown in color.

The trail was more marked where it went into the timber. It wound
through the trees for a few hundred yards and came out on a canoe-sized
stream. Here it forked. One trail crossed the stream and went up the
hill on the other side, the other followed the stream up the valley.

       *       *       *       *       *

_The Harn followed Ed's movements, observing carefully. It needed a
specimen from the other world, and this biped would serve nicely, but it
might as well learn as much as possible about him first. It could always
pick him up some time before he returned to his own world. Just to make
sure, it sent a stinging unit to guard the entrance._

       *       *       *       *       *

All his life, except for a short period in France, Ed had been a hunter,
never hunted. Still, you don't grow old in the woods by jumping without
looking. Coming into a new situation, he was wary as an old wolf. There
was a little shoulder right above the fork in the trail. He stood there
for several minutes, looking things over, and then went down and crossed
the stream at the next riffle, above the ford. By doing so, although he
did not know it, he missed the trap the Harn maintained at the ford for
chance passers-by.

On the other side of the creek, the trail ran angling off downstream,
skirted a small lake hidden in the trees, climbed over another low
shoulder and dropped into a second valley. As Ed followed along it, he
began to notice a few more signs of life--birds, small scurriers on the
ground and in tree tops--and this set him thinking. The country had a
picked-over feel to it, a hunted and trapped-out feel, worse where he
had first come through, but still noticeable here.

       *       *       *       *       *

_The Harn did not like to cross water, it could, but it did not like
to._

       *       *       *       *       *

Ed looked at the sun. It was getting down in the sky. If there was any
activity at all around here, the ford at dusk would be as likely a place
as any to find it. He worked back along the ridge to a point above where
he judged the ford to be. The breeze was drawing up the valley, but
favoring the other side a little. He dropped down and crossed the stream
a quarter mile above the ford, climbed well above the trail and worked
along the hillside until he was in a position where he could watch both
the ford and the fork in the trail. He squatted down against a tree in a
comfortable position, laid his gun across his knees, and rummaged in his
pack for the cold flapjacks, wrapped around slices of duck breast, which
he had packed for lunch.

After he had finished eating he drank from his canteen--the water in
this world might be good, it might not, there was no point in taking
chances till he could try it on the cat--and took an economical chew of
snuff. He settled back to wait.

_The Harn had lost Ed after he crossed the creek--it used a fallen tree
quite a way further up for its own crossing--and did not pick him up
again until just before he crossed back. Now, however, he had been
immobile for several minutes. This looked like about as good a time as
any to make the pickup. The Harn had a stinging unit just about
positioned, and it had dispatched a carrier to stand by._

After a while, sitting there, Ed began to feel uneasy. The timber was
big here, and open underneath, almost parklike. The nearest cover was
fifty or sixty yards off to his left, a little tangle of brush where a
tree had fallen and let a shaft of sunlight through.

It looked possible, but it didn't feel quite right. Still, it was about
the only place anything big enough to bother him could hide. The feeling
was getting stronger, the back hairs on Ed's neck were starting to stand
up now. Without visible movement, or even noticing himself that he was
doing it, he let awareness run over his body, checking the position and
stiffness of his legs--he had been sitting there quite a while--the
balance of the gun across his knees, the nearness of his thumb to the
hammer.

Thoughtfully, still studying the patch of brush, he spat a thin stream
over his left shoulder at a pile of leaves a few feet away.

Thinking about it later, Ed could almost have sworn the tobacco juice
sizzled as it hit. Actually, this was probably imaginary. The stinging
unit was not that sensitive to tobacco, though it was sensitive enough.
As the drops splattered it, the pile of leaves erupted with a snuffling
hiss like an overloaded teakettle into a tornado of bucking, twisting
activity.

Ed's reflexes were not quite as fast as they had been when he was young,
but they were better educated. Also, he was already keyed-up. Almost as
it started, the flurry in the leaves stopped with the roar of his rifle.
Fired like that, the heavy gun just about took his hand off, but he did
not notice it at the moment. He came erect in a quick scramble, jacking
in a fresh round as he did so. The scene took on that strange timeless
aspect it often does in moments of emergency, with a man's whole being
focused on the fleeting _now_--you know, in an academic sort of way,
that things are moving fast, you are moving fast yourself, but there
seems plenty of time to make decisions, to look things over and decide
what has to be done, to move precisely, with minimum effort and maximum
effect.

Whatever the thing at his feet was, it was out of the picture now--it
had not even twitched after the heavy bullet tore through it. There was
a stomping rush in the little thicket he had been watching. Ed took two
long quick steps to one side to clear a couple of trees, threw up the
gun and fired as something flashed across a thin spot in the brush. He
heard the whack of the bullet in flesh and fired again. Ordinarily he
did not like to shoot at things he could not see clearly, but this did
not seem the time to be overly finicky. There was no further movement in
the brush.

He stood there several long moments, listening, and there was no further
movement anywhere. He eased the hammer down, fed in three rounds to
replace those he had used, and walked slowly back to the first thing he
had shot.

At that range, the bullet had not opened up, but it had not needed to.
It had practically exploded the creature anyway--the .450 has two tons
of striking energy at the muzzle. From what was left, Ed deduced a
smallish, rabbit-sized thing, smooth-skinned, muscular, many-legged,
flattish, mottled to camouflage perfectly in the leaves. There was a
head at one end, mostly undamaged since it had been at the end of a long
muscular neck, with a pair of glazing beady eyes and a surprisingly
small mouth. When Ed pressed on the muscles at the base of the skull,
the mouth gaped roundly and a two-inch long spine slid smoothly out of
an inconspicuous slot just below it.

At middling distances or better, Ed could still see as well as ever, but
close up he needed help. He got out his pocket magnifier and studied the
spine. It looked hollow, grooved back for a distance from the point. A
drop of milky looking substance trembled on its tip.

Ed nodded thoughtfully to himself. This was what had made him uneasy, he
was pretty sure. What was the thing in the brush, then? Innocent
bystander? He got stiffly to his feet, conscious now of the ache in his
wrist that had taken most of the recoil of the first shot, the torn web
between his right thumb and forefinger where the hammer spur had bitten
in; and walked over to the thicket.

       *       *       *       *       *

The thing in the brush was larger, quite a bit larger, and the bullets
had not torn it up so badly. It lay sprawled with three of its eight
legs doubled under it, a bear-sized animal with a gaping, cavernous,
toothless mouth out of all proportion to the slender body which seemed
designed mainly as a frame for the muscular legs. It was not quite dead.
As Ed came up it struggled feebly to get up, but one of the heavy slugs
had evidently hit the spine, or whatever carried communications to the
hindquarters. It fell back, shuddering convulsively, and suddenly
regurgitated a small, furry animal.

Ed stepped back quickly to bring his rifle to bear, but the newest
arrival was obviously already dead.

He turned his attention back to the larger animal. It, too, was dead
now. There was an obvious family resemblance to the smaller one he had
shot in the leaves. Both were smooth-skinned, many-legged, and now that
he looked closely he could see this one had two mouths, a small one just
under the nostrils, purse-lipped and tiny in its huge face but quite
like that of the other creature. Neither looked even remotely like
anything he had ever seen before.

He laid down his rifle and took out his knife.

Ten minutes later, he knew quite a bit about the thing, but what he knew
did not make much sense. In the first place, its blood _was_ green, a
yellowish pussy green. In the second place, the larger mouth, complete
with jaws and impressive musculature, opened not into a digestive
system, but into a large closed pouch which comprised most of the
animal's torso. There was no proper digestive system at all, only a
rudimentary gut, heavily laced with blood vessels, terminating at one
end in the small second mouth, at the other in an even smaller anus.
Otherwise, the thing had no insides except a good pair of lungs and a
stout heart--none at all. Bone, muscle, lung, heart--plus the
ridiculously inadequate gut--that was it.

What about the small, furry, animal then; the one the other had been
carrying in its pouch? There was nothing much out-of-the-way about it--a
feline sort of carnivore, something like a marten. The fur looked
interesting, and he skinned it out, casing the hide. On the left ham,
the skin was punctured and there was a swollen, bluish area--about the
sort of wound that would be made by the fang of the first thing he had
shot. Ed squatted back on his heels, studying it and putting two and two
together. What two and two made was pretty hard to believe, but it
fitted the evidence.

He wiped his knife carefully on the grass, put it back in its sheath,
and got to his feet. Suddenly, the feeling that he was not alone
recurred. He looked quickly around.

Back where he had shot the first thing, a man in forest-green whipcord
trousers and jacket was leaning over, hands on knees, looking at the
remains. The man looked up and met Ed's eyes. He nodded casually and
walked over to the second thing, prodded it with his toe. After a long
moment he nodded again to Ed, smiled briefly, and winked out.

Ed stared at the empty air where the other man had been, mouth open. It
was just a little too much. A lot of things had happened to him in the
last few days, he had been able to take most of them more or less as
they came along, but after all, he wasn't a chicken any more, he was
pushing sixty, and there is a limit to what a man should have to put up
with at that age. The thought of his snug cabin, with a good fire going,
moosemeat bubbling in the pot, the gas lantern hissing, and the bottle
of Hudson's Bay rum he had tucked under the eaves against just such an
occasion as this, was suddenly very appealing.

Besides, it was getting late, and he didn't think he cared to be
stumbling around this world in the dark.

He elbowed his pack up, hooked the left shoulder strap, and headed for
home, staying off the trail in ordinary caution and watching his
footing, but moving pretty fast just the same.

Actually, he need not have been so careful.

The Harn had been surprised and shocked by the explosive violence of the
man's reaction to a routine harvesting maneuver. It was a relatively
young Harn, but it retained memories of its own world, where there were
also nasty, violent things which killed Harn. It was not pleasant to
think that it might have evoked some such monster in this hitherto
peaceful place.

Then, to top that, there had been the sudden appearance of the Warden.
The Harn, of course, saw the Warden not as a man, but in its true
aspect, which was not at all friendly.

All in all, this did not seem the moment to start any new adventures.
The Harn pulled in all its mobile units, including the stinger it had
left at the hole into the other world. It huddled protectively together
in its nest, considering these new developments.

       *       *       *       *       *

By ten that evening, Ed, in conference with old Tom and the bottle of
Hudson's Bay, had done considerable hard thinking, pro and con.

Of course, he didn't _have_ to go into the other world, just because the
hole was there. He could block it off, seal it up with timbers and
forget it.

He sat there and thought about this, absently smoothing the strange fur
on his knee. For an old-timer like himself, things weren't too hot in
this world. Fur didn't bring much of a price any more, and he couldn't
get it in as he had when he was younger. His wants were simple, but
there was a certain rock-bottom minimum he had to have. Too, the winters
were starting to bother him a little, the arthritis in his hands was
getting worse every year, times he hardly had the strength in his left
hand, which was the worst, to hold an ax. Another five, ten, years and
it would be the Pioneers' Home for him--if he did not get stove up or
sick sooner and die right here in the cabin, too helpless to cut wood
for the fire. He had helped bury enough others, bed and all when they
didn't come down the river at breakup and somebody had to go up and look
for them, to know it was possible.

The other world was milder, it had game and fur--good fur, too, from the
looks of it, something new that could lick any mutation or synthetic on
the market, and the income tax had still left a few fellows who could
pay through the nose to see their women look nice.

And, the country was new. He'd never thought he'd have a crack at a new
country again, a new, _good_ country. Often, he'd thought how lucky
people had been who were born a hundred and fifty years ago, moving into
an easy, rich country like the Ohio or Kentucky when it was new, instead
of the bitter North.

The Harn would be a nuisance--Ed did not think of it as the Harn, of
course, but just as "they"--but he supposed he could find a way to clean
them out. A man generally could, if varmints got troublesome enough.

And the man in forest-green whipcord, well, he _could_ have been just an
hallucination. Ed did not really believe in hallucinations, but he had
heard about them, and there was always a first time.

Ed sighed, looked at the clock, measured the bottle with his eye--still
better than three quarters full.

All in all, he guessed, he'd leave the door into the other world open.

He put old Tom out and went to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

The first order of business seemed to be to get better acquainted with
the Harn, and first thing in the morning he set about it. He took the
rabbit out of the live box and tethered it in a spot in the other world
close to the hole, where raw earth had been exposed by a big blowdown,
sweeping the ground afterward to clear it of tracks.

Getting better acquainted with the Harn, though, did not mean he had to
have it come in and crawl in bed with him.

Before going to bed the night before, he had set half a can of snuff to
steep in some water. He loaded a bug gun with this and sprayed the
ground around the hole into the other world. From the reaction
yesterday, he judged the stinging units did not like tobacco juice, and
this should discourage them from coming through.

He checked his bear snares and found three in good enough shape to
satisfy him--the large Harn beast, he suspected, would be about like a
grizzly to hold. Three would hardly be enough for a serious trapping
program. Ed made his own snares from old aircraft control cable, using a
lock of his own devising which slid smoothly and cinched down tight and
permanently. He got out his roll of wire and box of locks and started
making up some more, sitting where he could watch the rabbit he had
staked out.

By the middle of the afternoon the snares were done, but there had been
no action with the rabbit, nor was there for the rest of the day.

In the morning, though, it was gone. There were three new sets of tracks
in the bare spot--two smaller ones, either of which would have fitted
the stinging unit, and what looked like a carrier's. The action was
clear enough. The small things had prowled around the rabbit for some
time, stopping frequently as if uncertain and suspicious. Finally, one
had moved in, with a little flurry of action when it met the rabbit.
Then it had moved back and squatted again.

The big tracks came directly to the rabbit and went right out again.
They were heavy enough to be clear in the grass beyond the bare spot.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ed went back to the cabin and rummaged till he found a pair of
snakeproof pants a Stateside sport had once given him--heavy duck with
an interlining of woven wire. They were heavy and uncomfortable to wear,
and about as useless as wings on a pig in Alaska, where there are no
snakes; but they had been brand-new and expensive when given to him, and
he had put them away, thinking vaguely he might find a use for them some
day. It looked like that day might be now.

He slipped them on, took his rifle and hunting pack, and set out to
follow the animal that had taken the rabbit.

The trail showed well in the morning dew, going straight away along the
hillside as if the thing were headed some place definite. Ed followed
along for a quarter mile or so, then found himself on a fairly well
beaten path, which presently joined another, and then another, till it
was a definitely well used trail. It began to look to him like the thing
might have a den of some sort, and he might be getting pretty close to
it. He left the trail and climbed up into a lone tall tree,
fire-scorched but still struggling for life. From there, he could follow
the trail pretty well with his glasses for a couple of hundred yards
before he lost it. Finally, he settled on a spot under an old burnt
stump as a likely spot for the den.

He focused the glasses carefully and after a few minutes saw a flash of
movement there, as if something had slipped in or out. Nothing else
happened for about an hour. Then the grass along one of the trails began
to wave and a large beast, similar to the one he had shot, trotted into
sight. It slipped in under the stump and disappeared.

For the rest of the morning, nothing went in or out.

There was a very good reason for this, and Ed was it.

       *       *       *       *       *

All night and day after he shot the stinging unit and the carrier unit,
the Harn had stayed in its nest. By the second evening, it was getting
hungry. It ventured out and found a few morsels, but the organized
hunting network it ordinarily maintained had been disrupted, it had lost
track of things, and the pickings were poor. Then it stumbled on the
rabbit Ed had staked out.

Its first impulse was to leave the rabbit strictly alone. In spite of
its early promise, the other world had so far given nothing but trouble.
On the other hand, the rabbit was meat, and very good meat, by the smell
and looks of it....

The Harn kept its observation unit prowling irresolutely around the
target for half the night before it finally gave in to appetite and sent
in a stinger to finish the rabbit off, a carrier to pick it up.

It was still uneasy about this when it noticed Ed near the nest the next
morning, confirming its fears. It promptly broke up the net it had been
re-establishing and pulled all units back in. Maybe if it left him
strictly alone, he might still go on about his business, whatever that
was, and let the Harn get back to its harvesting.

       *       *       *       *       *

By noon, Ed was getting pretty stiff sitting in the tree. He climbed
down and eased over toward the stump, watching where he set his feet. He
was pretty sure the snakeproof pants would stop the stingers, but he saw
no point in putting them to the test until he had to.

About fifty yards away, he got a good view, and it did look like there
might be a sizable hole under the stump. He studied it carefully with
the glasses. There was a smooth-beaten mound in front, and exposed roots
were worn slick.

As he got closer, he noticed an unpleasant smell, and near the mouth of
the den he got a sudden whiff that almost gagged him--a sour, acid,
carrion stink like a buzzard's nest. He moved back a little. The hole
was wide and fairly high, two or three feet, but too dark to see back
into. Still, he had a sense of something stirring there not too far
back.

Ed had considerable respect for caves and dens with unseen occupants--he
had once helped carry in the bodies of two men who had poked a stick
into a spring grizzly's den. At the same time, he wanted pretty badly to
know what was in there. He suspected there was a good deal more than
what he had already seen.

The bug gun loaded with tobacco juice was in his pack, and a flashlight,
a small light one designed for a lady's purse which he always carried
when away from camp. He got them out and leaned his rifle against a root
sticking out just to the left of the den. Taking the bug gun in his left
hand and the flashlight in his right, he stooped over to shine the light
in, keeping as well clear of the entrance as possible.

All in all, he must have got about a five-second look, which is a lot
longer than it sounds when things are happening.

His first impression was a jumble--eyes, scurrying movement, and bulk.
Then things started to shape up. About ten feet back from the entrance
was a huge, flattish, naked, scabrous bulk, pimpled with finger-sized
teats. Clustered around and behind this were a tangle of slinging units,
carrier units, observation units. Some had their mouths fixed to teats.

For a long second or two the scene stayed frozen.

Then the front edge of the bulk split and began to gape. Ed found
himself looking down a manhole-sized gullet into a shallow puddle of
slime with bits of bone sticking up here and there. Toward the near end
a soggy mass of fur that might have been the rabbit seemed to be visibly
melting down. At the same moment, the tangle of lesser monsters sorted
themselves out and a wave of stingers came boiling out at him.

Ed dropped the flashlight, gave two mighty pumps of the bug gun, and
jumped clear of the entrance. For a moment, the den mouth boiled with
stingers, hissing and bucking in agony. Ed sprayed them heavily again,
snatched up his rifle, and ran, looking back over his shoulder. The
stingers showed no inclination to follow, though, the tobacco juice
seemed to be keeping them well occupied for the moment.

Halfway home, Ed had to stop and rest for a moment while he took a spell
of shuddering and gagging as a sudden picture of the slimy gullet came
into his mind, with Ed Brown laying where the rabbit had been, melting
down into a stinking soup of bones and gobbets of flesh.

When he got to the hole, his arrangement of tin cans, traps, and tobacco
juice no longer looked nearly as secure as it had. He got his ax and cut
two stout posts, framing the hole; built a stout slab door and hung it
from them. Then he drove stakes close together at the threshold, to foil
any attempts to dig under, and trimmed a sill tight to the door.

His feeling in this matter, as it happened, was sound.

The Harn was beginning to develop a pretty strong dislike for Ed Brown.
Three of its stinging units were dead, and most of the rest were in poor
shape, thanks to the tobacco spray. It had got a little whiff of the
stuff itself, not enough to do any serious damage ordinarily, but right
now, so close to swarming time--

Ed was going to have to go.

So far, in this world, the Harn had needed only the three basic types of
mobile units. There were other standard types, however, for dealing with
more complicated situations. As it happened, a couple of carrier embryos
were at just about the right stage. With a little forcing, they could be
brought on in not too long a time. Meanwhile, the Harn would do what it
could with the material available.

When Ed came through the next day to set his snares, the Harn was
prepared to test his snakeproof pants. They held, which was
disconcerting to the Harn, but it was a hard creature to convince, once
thoroughly aroused. Ed was not too sure of how well the pants would
stand up to persistent assault himself. After the third ambush, he took
to spraying suspicious looking spots with tobacco juice. He shot two
more stingers in this way, but it slowed him up quite a bit. It took him
all day to make four sets.

In the next three days he made a dozen sets and caught two carriers.
Then, the fourth day, as he adjusted a snare, a seeming root suddenly
came to life and slashed at his hand. He was wearing gloves to keep his
scent from the snares, and the fang caught the glove and just grazed the
ball of his left thumb. The hatchet he had been using to cut a toggle
was lying by his knee. He snatched it up and chopped the stinger before
it could strike again, then yanked off the glove and looked at his hand.
A thin scratch, beaded with drops of blood, showed on the flesh.
Unhesitatingly, he drew the razor edge of the hatchet across it, sucked
and spat, sucked and spat again and again. Then he started for home.

He barely made it. By the time he got to the hole, he was a very sick
man. He latched the door, stumbled into the cabin and fell on the bed.

It was several days before he was able to be about again, his hand still
partly paralyzed.

During that time, the situation changed. The Harn took the offensive.

Ed's first notice of this was a rhythmic crashing outside the cabin. He
managed to crawl to where he could see the gate he had built to block
the hole into the other world. It was shaking from repeated batterings
from the other side. Dragging his rifle with his good hand, he scrabbled
down to where he could see through the chinks in the slab door. Two of
the carrier units were there, taking turns slamming their full weight
against it. He had built that gate skookum, but not to take something
like that.

He noted carefully where they were hitting it, then backed off twenty
feet and laid the .450 across a log. He let them hit the door twice more
to get the timing before he loosed off a shot, at the moment of impact.
The battering stopped abruptly, and through the chinks he could see a
bulk piled against the gate.

For a while there was no more action. Then, after a few tentative butts
at the door, the battering started again. This time, Ed wasn't so lucky.
The battering stopped when he fired, but he got an impression that the
carrier ran off. He thought he might have hit it, but not mortally.

In an hour or so the Harn was back, and it kept coming back. Ed began to
worry about his ammunition, which was not unlimited. Ordinarily, two or
three boxes lasted him through the winter. He got his .30-06, for which
he had a sugar sack full of military ammunition. The light full-patch
stuff did not have the discouraging effect of the .450, though, and he
had to shoot a lot oftener.

Another thing, he wasn't getting any rest, which was bad in his already
weakened condition. Every time he dozed off the battering would start
again, and he would have to wake up and snap a few shots through the
door. He held pretty much on one spot, not wanting to shoot the door to
pieces, but the Harn noticed this, and started hitting the door in other
places.

The second day of the attack, the door came down. It had been pretty
shaky for some time, and Ed had got the cabin ready for a siege, filling
butter kegs with water and nailing up the windows. As the Harn poured
through, he shot several and then broke for the cabin. A carrier ran at
him full tilt, bent on bowling him over. Once off his feet, he would
have been easy meat for one of the stingers. He sidestepped, swung his
shotgun up in one hand--he had kept it handy for the close fighting--and
blew the carrier's spine in half. He had to kick it aside to slam the
cabin door.

For a few minutes, then, things were pretty hectic. Ed went from one to
another of the loopholes he had cut, blasting first with the shotgun as
the Harn crowded around, then using the .30 as they grew more cautious.

       *       *       *       *       *

After the first rush, it was obvious to the Harn that the cabin was
going to be a tough nut to crack. On the other hand, there was no rush
about it either. Necessarily, it had let its hunting go the past several
days while it concentrated on Ed. It was pretty hungry, and it was in
rich pickings now--Ed had always kept from disturbing game close to the
cabin, partly because he liked to see it around, and partly because he
had an idea that some day he might be in a fix where he couldn't travel
very well, and would want meat close to hand. The Harn felt no such
compunctions. The stinging units spread through the woods, and shortly a
steady procession of loaded carriers began to stream back through the
hole. Ed picked off the first few, but then the Harn found it could
route them up the river trail in such a way that he got only a glimpse
as they flashed through the hole. After that he did not hit very many.

Ed stopped shooting. He was getting short on ammunition for the .30 now,
too. He counted up. There were eighteen rounds for the .450, half a box
of 220 grain soft point for the .30 plus about the same amount of
military stuff, and a handful of shotgun shells. Of course, there was
still the .30 Luger with a couple of boxes, and the .22; but they were
not much account for this kind of work.

He looked at the cabin door. It was stout, built of hewed three-inch
slabs, but it wouldn't last forever against the kind of beating the gate
had got. Even if it did, he was going to run out of water eventually.

Ed thought about that for a while, sitting at the table staring at the
little pile of cartridges. He was going to be run out of here sooner or
later, he might as well pick his own time, and now seemed about as good
as any, while the Harn was busy exploring and hunting.

He sighed and got up to rummage around the cabin. The snakeproof pants
had done real good, but he did not trust them entirely. There was some
sheet iron laid over the ceiling joists, which he had brought up to make
new stoves for his line camps. He got this down and cut it into small
pieces. Around the edges he drilled a number of small holes. Then he got
out his mending gear and began sewing the plates, in an overlapping
pattern, to the legs of the snakeproof pants and to an old pair of
moccasins. When he finished, he was pretty well armored as far as his
crotch. It was an awkward outfit to move around in, but as long as he
was able to stay on his feet, he figured he would be reasonably secure
from the stingers. As for the bigger ones, he would just have to depend
on seeing them first, and the .450.

Next, he needed some gasoline. The fuel cache was under a big spruce,
about twenty yards from the door. He made the round of his loopholes.
There were no Harn in sight, they were apparently ignoring him for now.
He slipped out the door, closing it securely behind him, and started for
the cache.

As he stepped out, a stinger came from under the sill log and lashed at
his foot. He killed it with the ax beside the door, saving a cartridge,
and went on, walking fairly fast but planting his feet carefully, a
little awkward in his armor. He picked up a five-gallon can of gas, a
quart of motor oil, and the twenty feet of garden hose he used for
siphoning gas down the bank to the boat. On the way back, another
stinger hit him. He kicked it aside, not wanting to set down his load,
and it came at him again and again. Just outside the door, he finally
caught it under a heel and methodically trampled it to death. Then he
snatched open the door, tossed the stuff inside, and pulled it quickly
shut behind him.

So far, good enough.

He lashed the gas can solidly to his packboard, slipped the end of the
hose into the flexible spout and wired it tight. Then he cut up an old
wool undershirt and wrapped the pieces around miscellaneous junk--old
nuts and bolts, chunks of leadline, anything to make up half a dozen
packages of good throwing heft. He soaked these in oil and stowed them
in a musette bag which he snapped to the D-rings of the pack.

One of the metal plates on his moccasin was hanging by a thread,
probably he had torn it loose in the scuffle at the door. They weren't
going to take too much kicking and banging around, he could see, and
once he was on his way, it wouldn't be a very good idea to be caught
bending over with his bare hands at ground level to fix them. On the
other hand, he couldn't be using all his cartridges on the stingers,
either, he had to save them for the carriers. He thought about this some
while mending the moccasin, and decided to take the bug gun. It might
not kill the stingers, but it ought to discourage them enough so they
wouldn't keep pestering him.

With his bad left arm, he had trouble getting the pack on his back. He
finally managed by swinging it up on the table first. It was not too
much of a load, forty or fifty pounds he guessed. Still, shaky as he
was, it was about as much as he could manage. He had intended to just
try it on for size, but after he got it up he thought: well, why not
now? He picked up the .450, stowed the extra cartridges in his pocket,
checked to make sure he had matches, hung the bug gun on his belt, and
opened the door.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was just getting dusk, but the other world was in broad daylight, the
days and nights were almost completely reversed again. As he stepped
through the hole, the first stinger struck. He gave it a good squirt of
tobacco juice. It went bucking and twisting off and he went on, stepping
carefully and solidly.

Luckily, most of the Harn was foraging in the new world. Two more
stingers ambushed him, but the tobacco juice got rid of them, and he had
no serious trouble till he got close to the den. Two carriers came out
and rushed him there. He shot them both and then killed the stinger that
was pecking at his shins. He moved quickly now, he had an idea that in
about a minute all hell would break loose. He swung the pack down on the
uphill side of the den, wet the musette bag with a quick spray of gas,
tossed it over his shoulder, jammed the free end of the hose into the
den mouth and stabbed the can with his knife to vent it. As the gas
poured into the den he lit one of his oil and gas soaked bombs and ran
around in front, lighting one after another from the one in his hand and
tossing them into the den. The musette bag caught fire and he snatched
it from his shoulder and tossed it after the bombs. A whoof and a sheet
of flame blew out.

About fifty yards away there was a slender, popplelike tree. Ed had
thought if he could make that, he would be reasonably secure while the
Harn burned. He ran for it as hard as he could, beating at the flames
that had spattered on him from the burning gas, but he never made it.

Harn were erupting everywhere. A carrier suddenly came charging out of
the brush to his left. While Ed dealt with that one, the Harn played its
ace in the hole. The two special units it had been developing to deal
with Ed were not quite done yet, but they were done enough to work for
the few minutes the Harn needed them. Ed heard a coughing grunt behind
him and spun around to see something new crawling out of the flame and
smoke at the den entrance.

This one was a roughly carrier shaped creature, but half again as large,
built for killing. It had powerful fanged jaws and its eight feet were
armed with knifelike, disemboweling claws. As it came at Ed in a
lumbering rush, another came crawling out after it.

Ed shot four times, as fast as he could work the action. The heavy slugs
did the job, but not quite well enough. With its dying lunge the thing
got to him and tossed him ten feet like a rag doll. He lit on his bad
hand and felt the wrist bones go.

As he struggled to get up, digging his elbow in and using one hand, he
saw a stinger darting in at him. He had lost both the bug gun and his
rifle when the fighting unit swiped him. He swiveled on his hips and
kicked the stinger away. Then he saw the second fighting unit coming. He
forgot about the stinger. It still might get to him, but, if it did, it
would be too late to matter.

He drew his knife, managed to get to one knee, and crouched there like
an old gray rat, stubbly lips drawn back from worn teeth in a grin of
pain and rage. This was one he wasn't going to win, he guessed.

Ten feet away, the fighting unit suddenly ran down like a clockwork toy.
It toppled over, skidded past him under its own momentum, and lay there
kicking spasmodically. Ed glared at it uncomprehendingly. It arched its
neck back to almost touch its haunches, stiffened, and was still.

Ed looked around. The stinger was dead too, three feet from his
shoulder, and half a dozen more which had been making for him. A cloud
of greasy, stinking smoke was rolling out of the den. The Harn was
dead.

Ed put his knife away and lay back. He did not quite pass out, but
things got pretty dim.

After a while he got hold of himself and sat up. He was not too
surprised to see the man in forest green prodding at the bodies of the
fighting units. The stranger looked at the smoke still oozing from the
den and nodded approvingly. Then he came over and looked at Ed. He
clacked his tongue in concern and bent over, touching Ed's wrist. Ed
noticed there was now a cast on it, and it didn't hurt so much. There
was also a plastic binding around his ribs and shoulder, where the claws
of the first fighter had raked as it tossed him. That was a mighty neat
trick, because the rags of his shirt were still buttoned around him, and
he was pretty sure it had not been off at any time.

The stranger smiled at Ed, patted him on the shoulder, and disappeared.
He seemed to be a busy sort of fellow, Ed thought, with not much time
for visiting.

Ed felt quite a bit better now, enough better to gather up what was left
of his gear and start home. He was glad to find old Tom waiting for him
there. The cat had taken to the woods when the attack on the gate first
started, he didn't like shooting, and Ed had worried that the Harn might
have got him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ed slept till noon the next day, got up and cooked a dozen flapjacks and
a pound of bacon. After breakfast, he sat around for an hour or so
drinking coffee. Then he spent the rest of the afternoon puttering
around the cabin.

He packed away the snakeproof pants, disassembled the flame-thrower,
picked up the traps by the hole.

Old Tom seemed to have pretty well cleaned up the mice under the
lean-to. Ed took his shovel and filled in the hole he had dug for the
cat to get at them.

He went to bed early. Tomorrow he would take a long hike around the new
world, scout out the fur and game, plan his trap-line and pick cabin
sites.

The next morning, though, the hole into the other world was gone.

The posts which had marked it were sheared neatly in half. The remains
of the door still hung there, battered and sagging; but it swung open on
nothing but Alaska, when Ed stepped through he found himself standing
beside the old leaning birch.

He tried it several times before he convinced himself.

He walked slowly back toward the cabin, feeling old and uncertain, not
quite knowing what to do with himself. Old Tom was over by the lean-to,
sniffing and pawing tentatively at the fresh earth where Ed had filled
in the hole. As Ed came up, he came over to rub against Ed's leg.

They went into the cabin and Ed started fixing breakfast.

THE END





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