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´╗┐Title: Phantom of the Forest
Author: Francis, Lee
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 "Phantom of the Forest" ***

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



                        PHANTOM OF THE FOREST

                           By LEE FRANCIS

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Amazing Stories November
1948. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Sidenote: Every year men slaughter deer by the thousands; it seems only
fitting that the tables be turned once in a while....]


The automobile reached the crest of the hill, skidded and started toward
the ditch. Earl Robinson twisted the wheel savagely, got the feel of the
ice hidden under the snow, and deftly straightened the car. Roy Starr
awakened at his side and sat up. His eyes were narrowed with sleep.

"Lord," he groaned, "how much farther?"

Robinson spoke through gritted teeth.

"About three miles. Might as well be a million."

The car was moving forward about twenty miles per hour. Three people
slept in the rear seat. They were packed under pieces of equipment.
There were half a dozen guns stacked across their feet.

The snow came down thickly, endlessly. It drifted across the road.
Almost eight inches had fallen since sundown. Tomorrow, there won't be
any traffic moving, Robinson thought, not without a plow to break the
trail. The valley will be a lost world.

"Shangrila," he said softly.

"Huh?" Roy Starr was almost asleep once more.

Robinson said, "Skip it."

He was thinking about the war, and the deep, lost valleys he flew into
when he flew the "hump."

He tried to concentrate on the road once more. They had come six miles
from Indian River. The road was just a white line, leading up and down
long rows of dark evergreens. The snow filled the air, tangling his
thoughts, filling the world with stinging, blinding particles of white.
The snow actually seemed to hurt his eyes. It seemed to be hitting his
eyeballs.

He shook his head angrily. _Sleep_ was stinging his eyes. He watched the
trackless road with an intensity of a man hovering between life and
death. Sleep--and death. Trying desperately to avoid both.

One more long hill.

Taking a long chance, he pressed the gas pedal down as far as it would
go. The motor roared, protested and the car leaped ahead like a monster
alive. The speedometer said fifty--then fifty-five. Sixty. At sixty they
hit the sharp incline. Roy Starr was wide awake now, holding tightly to
the door-handle, as though it insured him against an accident. Someone
stirred in the back seat.

"Almost there?" It was a girl's voice, sleepy and disinterested.

"Almost," Earl Robinson said, and twisted the wheel again. The car went
crosswise with the road. It slid forward, up the hill, careened wildly
and straightened its course once more. Robinson sighed.

"Close," he said.

"_Earl, for God's sake, stop!!_"

Roy Starr's voice welled out of him, filled with stark horror. Robinson
saw the weird, shadowy form on the road just in time. He pressed hard on
the brake and the car jerked into the ditch, and stopped with a
sickening jolt.

The girl in the rear seat clawed her way forward, clutching Starr's
shoulder.

"A man on the road," she cried. "Earl, you hit him."

She started sobbing as though her heart were breaking.

"Shut up," Robinson snapped. His nerves had reached the breaking point.
Then, in a gentler voice. "There's a man there all right, Marge. I
didn't hit him. Get hold of yourself. Glenn, Glenn, take care of her,
will you?"

       *       *       *       *       *

All three people in the rear seat were wide awake now. Glenn Starr,
dark, serious, in full control of his wits, drew the sobbing girl back
beside him.

"Take it easy, kid," he said. "Earl will take care of everything. We
haven't done anything wrong."

The other man, sitting on the far side of the car, pushed the door open
and climbed out.

"Man, this is a storm, and I don't mean perhaps. Nice little ditch we
got ourselves into."

Robinson and Roy Starr got out. Roy pulled his collar up tightly around
his neck. He walked back a few paces and kneeled beside the snow buried
corpse. Earl Robinson, tall, solid, stood over him as he pushed away the
snow.

"Nobody I know," Roy said, and turned away so he wouldn't have to stare
at the dead, frozen face.

Robinson bent over and pushed more snow away.

"I'll be damned."

The chest was badly crushed. Blood had frozen in the snow next to the
wound.

"Hit sometime before the snow came," Robinson said.

Roy Starr was brushing snow away from the corpse.

"Maybe," he said softly. "A car never hit him, though. There aren't any
blood tracks. The hole is in the direct center of his chest. The ribs
aren't crushed on either side."

Robinson's voice was a little hushed.

"That's what I was thinking. Looks like a bear might have mauled him."

Roy Starr came slowly to his feet.

"Look," he said, "we aren't kidding ourselves. Something hit him, hard,
in the chest. It wasn't a car because it didn't break in the whole bone
structure. It wasn't a bear, because a bear would have done a more
thorough job of it. Shooting is out. That isn't a bullet wound."

Robinson shrugged.

"What's left?"

"The same thing that's been killing hunters for the past five years,"
Starr said grimly. "For lack of a better name, the phantom buck."

Robinson turned away, looking toward the car.

"You're crazy," he said. "Let's say we're both crazy. Our imaginations
are running riot. I think the rest of the party ought to know about the
_automobile accident_. We can't do any good here. We'll go on to
Rosewood if we can get the buggy out of the ditch. We can call the
sheriff from there. This is the sheriff's job, not ours."

The three people who had ridden in the rear seat were in the ditch,
pushing snow away from the wheels. Glenn Starr was saying quietly:

"We ought to get him out of the road."

Robinson went to work with the shovel, digging the right rear wheel out
of the snow and the thick, half-frozen mud.

"Forget all about it," he said. "No one will be driving through here
tonight. We'll call the sheriff from Rosewood. Outside of that, it's
none of our business. Automobile accident. Wasn't our fault. We've done
all we can."

They worked hard, all of them trying to forget the body on the road and
concentrate on the task of freeing the car from the ditch. In twenty
minutes they were on their way, crawling slowly down the opposite side
of the hill into the cup-like valley where a country store, church and
schoolhouse had been flatteringly named "Village of Rosewood!"

Marjorie Wrenn was still crying softly. Glenn tried to comfort her, but
the girl was exhausted mentally and physically. The snow still blotted
out everything but a few yards of the road. Once in the valley, Robinson
released his grip on the wheel and relaxed.

"Roy," he said softly.

"Yea?"

"About that phantom buck story. I wouldn't talk too much. On the square,
though I'm inclined to wonder."

Roy Starr's voice sank to a whisper.

"You think--maybe...?"

"Yea," Robinson answered, "I think--maybe...."

       *       *       *       *       *

The electric light flashed on, making the world of swirling snow
friendly once more. The car was parked beside the house, close to the
barn. The place was a huge country store with the living quarters
attached like a toad-stool to the side of it. There was a wood-pile in
the yard, hidden under a foot of snow, looking like a crouching, white
monster. A single pole had been buried in the ground, and from it hung a
six-point buck. The deer had been gutted, and blood made little red
blobs on the snow.

Glenn Starr climbed out and helped Marjorie Wrenn to the ground. He saw
the overcoated figure emerging from the woodshed.

"Norm, you old horse. Got any snake bite medicine?"

Norm Boody, a well fed duplicate of Slim Summerville, was clad in a
heavy overcoat drawn over a flannel night-shirt. His feet were hidden in
vast, felt slippers.

"Thought you people weren't gonna get here. It's almost three in the
morning. About those snake bites. What's the matter? Snow snakes biting
tonight?"

The others were getting stiffly out of the car.

Earl Robinson said solemnly:

"Those snow snakes bite before you can go ten feet. We had a little
trouble, Norm."

Boody found a half filled bottle in his coat and passed it around.

"Bad country to drive in a storm," he said.

"Worse than usual," Robinson said. "There is a dead man laying down the
road a mile or two."

Norm Boody gulped from the bottle, choked and spewed the whiskey on the
snow.

"It--wasn't Bill, was it?"

Robinson shook his head.

"No one I know. Dressed in hunter's outfit. Didn't find his gun.
Probably buried under the snow."

Boody sighed. He looked uncertain.

"Bill went into Indian River for some stuff. He didn't come back."

"Look," Glenn said suddenly. "Marge is freezing and we're all tired out.
We better get inside."

Norm Boody sprang toward the door and held it open.

"Sure, sure," he said. "The wife's got both coffee pots steaming by now.
I oughta be shot for not getting this poor girl inside the minute she
came. It ain't fit weather...."

Robinson smiled.

"Let's get to that coffee."

Inside, they all greeted Mrs. Boody. While she poured coffee into the
cups on the kitchen table, Robinson cornered Norm Boody and led him into
the living room. It was a low-ceilinged, warm, homey place. A telephone
hung on the far wall. Robinson dialed the sheriff's number at Indian
River, put the receiver back in place, lifted it and tried again. He
shook his head.

"Trouble?" Boody asked.

"The line must be down. Phone won't work. Guess we'll sleep tonight and
make that call in the morning."

The two men sat down in the darkness of the living room. Mrs. Boody, a
grey headed, smiling woman who looked as though she might be anyone's
mother, came in with two steaming cups.

"You better drink before you freeze," she said. "That darned stove takes
so long to heat up."

She turned to her husband.

"Norm, what's wrong?"

Norm Boody grimaced.

"Man dead down the road. Something mauled him. Killed before the snow
came this evening. Earl most ran over him."

       *       *       *       *       *

The room was deathly silent for a moment. Then the woman's voice came,
almost in a sob.

"Norm, Norm, it wasn't Bill, was it?"

Robinson said quickly:

"It wasn't Bill. I saw the face. No one I've ever seen before."

"Thank God for that," Mrs. Boody said. "You called the sheriff?"

"Can't," Norm Boody said. "Line's out of order. We'll get in touch with
town in the morning."

"I don't think we'll sleep much tonight," a soft voice said from the
door.

Earl Robinson chuckled. It was an attempt to put the whole thing off
lightly. It didn't sound very sincere.

"You'll sleep all right, Marjorie. After that trip, we'll all sleep."

The girl smiled wanly.

"I hope so. It's hard--thinking of that--that...."

Daylight brought a peaceful, untroubled look to the valley. For ten
miles, without a track save for the animals who had moved during the
night, the valley stretched upward on all sides to the wooded hills. The
big general store, schoolhouse and country church nestled in the center
of the snow cup, with trackless roads leading away to the four points of
the compass.

Blue-gray smoke lifted straight upward from the house, drifted two
hundred feet into the sky and wafted away into nothingness.

Robinson came out of the woodshed with his black and red plaid coat
wrapped tightly around him. It was a grand hunting morning, and he
didn't intend to let last night's incident spoil it. The country was
beautiful but there was nothing gentle about it. You had to face
violence and forget it--quickly. Death wasn't easy to look at, but here,
people learned that when it came, there was no point in letting it
interfere with their life.

Bill Boody hadn't come in last night. His car wasn't to be seen.
Robinson went back into the woodshed. He climbed the steps to the
kitchen and walked in quietly behind Mrs. Boody, who was bent over the
kitchen stove.

"Where's Norm?" he asked.

Mrs. Boody looked worn and tired, as though she hadn't slept.

"Milking the cows. Bill didn't come home last night."

He knew that she was still suspicious of him. She wasn't sure that he
told the truth about the body on the road.

"Bill will be okay," he said. "Are any of the others up?"

Mrs. Boody smiled.

"Roy came out a few minutes ago. He took one look at the thermometer
outside the kitchen window, groaned and went back to bed."

Robinson started for the bedroom.

"You better let Marge sleep," Mrs. Boody said. "She was all worn out.
She needs the rest."

"Earl," the woman at the stove said. There was a quality of urgency in
her voice that stopped him short. He pivoted.

"Yes?"

"You think the phantom buck might have done the killing?"

Here it was again, he thought. They weren't satisfied to let the whole
thing pass as an accident. They had to bring up dead dogs, fall back on
superstition. Everything was perfect for hunting, and they had to spoil
the spirit of the thing.

"That phantom buck business is a damned fairy tale," he said.

"_But you think it was the phantom buck, all the same._"

Robinson said nothing. The woman pushed the coffee pot back on the stove
and went to the window. She stared out at the snowy world.

"Bill _saw_ the phantom buck once."

"I know," Robinson said. He wished she wouldn't talk about it. She was
getting herself all excited. "Probably Bill had been drinking some of
that snake bite medicine."

Mrs. Boody shook her head.

"Bill don't touch a drop." Her face was very red, maybe from the stove.
"Bill said the buck was the biggest deer he'd ever seen. He went right
by Bill, and disappeared, right in broad daylight. Bill looked for
tracks after he was gone, and there weren't any."

She wet her lips and went back to the stove.

"I wouldn't worry, Mrs. Boody," Robinson said.

She looked up then with frantic eyes.

"_It isn't Bill, out there on the road, dead?_"

He went swiftly to her and put one hand on her shoulder.

"I wouldn't lie to you. It wasn't him."

She seemed to relax for the first time since last night.

"I guess you're telling the truth. I wish Bill would come home, though.
They used to say that anyone who saw the phantom buck was getting ready
for an early death."

       *       *       *       *       *

Norm Boody came up from the barn with two steaming pails of milk. Roy
Starr was getting dressed in the kitchen, close to the stove. He was
muttering threats against his brother, Glenn.

"Never let a guy sleep," he groaned. "Always the first guy up and the
only man on earth who can't let other people stay in bed when they want
to."

Glenn Starr and Marjorie were already at the breakfast table. The others
drifted in and sat down. A girl and a husky, sleepy-eyed man came down
from upstairs. Roy Starr greeted the girl by chasing her around the
stove and left her alone only after she picked up the poker and
threatened to use it on him.

Robinson introduced the fifth member of the hunting party at the
breakfast table.

"Pete Larson hasn't hunted before," he said. "Pete, you know our own
bunch. You know Norm and Mrs. Boody now. The tall, fair damsel holding
the coffee pot is Norma, Mrs. Boody's best assistant housekeeper and
daughter. The sleepy eyed creature at her side is her husband, Floyd."

Larson himself was heavy set, and a slightly ponderous man who wore
light rimmed glasses and a rather awed look on his face.

"I guess I've let myself in for some rugged country and some heavy
eating," he said. "Anyhow, I always did like a fifth cup of coffee and
the supply looks adequate."

"It _was_ rugged last night, all right," Roy Starr said.

Instantly there was silence. Norma, the tall, slim girl, looked at her
mother questioningly.

Robinson broke in before she had time to speak.

"We found a dead man on the road last night. Nobody we knew."

He heard Norma and her husband catch their breaths quickly. Then the
telephone rang and he was on his feet. Norm Boody was closer to the
phone and answered it. The remainder of the group went on eating, but
every ear was tuned to the conversation.

"Yes?"

He listened for a time, then said:

"I got a party of hunters who came in last night. They saw him on the
road. We tried to call you but the wires were dead."

Then:

"Oh? So that was it. Okay, we'll keep an eye open. Haven't seen Bill,
have you? He's coming in behind the plough? Good. We were worried about
him."

"Telephone linemen came through this morning," he explained. "They
picked up the body. That was Sheriff Walt Beardsly calling. He ain't
blaming you boys. Says your tracks went right around the body. Says a
bear must have mauled the guy. They found his gun in the ditch."

Earl Robinson said:

"Yea, that's what happened all right. Bill's okay, isn't he?"

Boody nodded.

"Spent the night at the sheriff's house. Couldn't drive in. He's coming
in a couple of hours."

Mrs. Boody went out for some more coffee. Larson, managing a smile,
said:

"Guess we can go hunting without worrying about anything--except bear."

Norma tickled her husband between well padded ribs.

"Take Floyd along. He'll chase all the bears to the other side of the
mountain."

Floyd grinned.

"Guess you boys can take care of yourselves."

Roy Starr hadn't taken an active part in the conversation for some time.
He brought his fist down on the table with a bang.

"To hell with the phantom," he stood up. "Ten minutes ago you were all
tied up inside with a damned silly superstition. Now you're kidding
yourselves that everything is okay. You're _still_ ready to believe in
ghosts and goblins at a moment's notice. What's the matter? We all too
scared to think clearly for ourselves?"

Robinson got up.

"Come on, Roy," he said. "Let's go out and get chains on the car. We'll
need them to make that south hill."

Roy Starr was trembling. Something had slipped inside him. Something
that made him angry at all of them. Who did they think he was? Could
they handle him like a ten year old kid?

"You want to lead Junior outside and give him a lecture," he snapped.
"Please don't scare these good people. Well, you can all go to hell. I'm
going after a deer. If it turns out to be the phantom buck, I'll get
_him_. I'm going alone and I don't need you or the car or anything else.
I still got two good feet."

They sat there and watched him go. Robinson sat down a little weakly.
They heard Roy pick up his rifle in the kitchen and waited until his
footsteps faded beyond the woodshed.

"Well," Robinson said at last, "I guess Junior is on the warpath."

       *       *       *       *       *

Glenn Starr looked at his watch. He halted in the protection of the
evergreen grove and turned his back to the wind. Marjorie Wrenn caught
up with him.

"Better rest," Glenn said. "It's after noon."

He found some sandwiches in his pocket and passed her one. The girl's
face was very pale.

"The tracks didn't come out of the swamp," she said.

"Forget the tracks," Glenn said gently. "It's been snowing since ten
o'clock. They were Roy's tracks all right. The snow drifted in and
covered them up. He probably headed for home hours ago."

"I--can't eat, Glenn. Let's go back. Let's try to find the tracks again.
I'm scared, Glenn. I'm so scared my teeth are chattering."

Glenn took her rifle.

"Follow me," he said abruptly. "You're all done in. I'll take the
shortest route."

The girl took half a dozen faltering steps and sank down into the snow.
When he reached her side, she was out cold. He rubbed her wrists and
cheeks until her eyes, full of tears, opened slowly.

"You're gonna be all right," he said, and picked her up in his arms.

Slowly, for he knew it was going to be a rough trail, he headed across
the valley toward home.

Earl Robinson moved more slowly now. He and Larson had swung down from
the north and crossed the three sets of tracks. Larson, puffing from his
first day of marching, came behind him. Robinson stopped finally. He
waited for Larson to catch up. He pointed at the almost covered tracks.

"Here's where they missed his trail," he said. "I think we can still
follow it if we take our time."

"Look," Larson said abruptly, "you don't believe that phantom buck
business, do you?"

Robinson didn't answer. He started away through the swamp, watching for
a broken twig here, an almost buried footprint there. It took him two
long hours to find the end of the trail. It had started to snow again.
The boy was half covered with the drift. A thick growth of cedars had
protected him from the full force of the storm. His eyes were wide open
and he showed signs of recognizing Robinson as the big man bent over
him. He tried to smile, but he couldn't. There was blood around his lips
and his jacket was torn open to reveal a deep, bloody gash in his chest.

Robinson built a fire hurriedly and Larson kept the blaze alive with dry
logs.

Robinson swore softly as he found bandages in his kit and administered
first aid. He swore at the cold, and the snow, and the thing that had
done this to the kid.

They carried Roy Starr out that night, and it was close to midnight
before they met Norm Boody and the party who had come in search of them.
Mrs. Boody had coffee on the stove when they got in. Robinson, once Roy
Starr was warm and fairly safe once more, fell into a chair and slept
like a child. An hour later, he was on his feet again, staggering, half
dead from exhaustion, giving orders to the doctor who had come from
Indian River.

       *       *       *       *       *

Roy spoke in a whisper.

"Earl?"

He was in pain. Bad pain. Earl took his hand.

"It's okay, kid. I'm with you. It's all over."

"Earl," the voice was a sob. "Earl, it's true about the phantom. I saw
him."

"I know," Robinson said softly. "Keep quiet. We found you in the swamp.
Larson and I brought you in. The Doc says you're okay. Few days rest."

Roy felt all choked up and hot inside. He squeezed Earl's hand.

"Tell Larson he's okay. You're okay. Earl, we got to get out'a here."

His fever was rising.

"Listen, junior," Robinson said sternly, "I said everything's okay, and
it is. Lay still and sleep."

Roy wasn't hearing him now. He tried to force himself up on one elbow.
His eyes were filled with memories--of terror.

"I was a sap, Earl. I tell you I saw him. He was big and beautiful, big
as a nightmare. He snorted right close to me and there was fire shooting
out of his nostrils. He hit me like lightning, Earl. I--don't
remember--after--that."

He sank back, breathing hard.

Glenn Starr came in from the bedroom.

"How's Roy?"

"He's going to sleep now, aren't you Roy?" Earl asked.

"Yea--I'm gonna sleep."

"_I_ can't sleep," Glenn Starr said. "If we'd kept him here this
morning, he'd have been all right."

"Is Bill up?" Earl asked.

"Yea! He's talking with the Doc in the kitchen. Doctor hasn't left yet."

"Send in Bill and tell Doc to wait a little while," Robinson said
grimly.

Bill Boody came into the darkened room and sat down quietly by the
couch.

"How's Roy?"

"Okay, Bill," Robinson said. "I been doing some thinking."

"About what?"

Bill Boody was tall, slim, and well put together. His face, burned dark
from sun and rain, was sensitive and mirrored friendliness and
intelligence.

"About the phantom buck," Robinson said.

"We all have," Boody said. "Norm told you I saw the phantom once, didn't
he?"

Robinson nodded.

"Why didn't the phantom attack you, Bill?"

Boody shook his head.

"I don't know. It was the phantom all right. He was big--and grand, like
sort of a God."

Neither of them said anything for a while. Roy was sleeping. His
breathing came easier now.

"I guess I sound a little corny," Boody said. "I don't mean to."

"No," Robinson answered. "No, I wasn't thinking of that. Roy says it was
the phantom that attacked him. He felt kinda like you do about it."

Robinson stood up and walked to the window. He stared upward toward the
dark, moonlit forest.

"When did you see the phantom?"

Bill looked thoughtful.

"It was just before dusk...."

"I guess I'm not making my question clear," Robinson interrupted. "I
mean, was it during hunting season?"

"It was last spring. We were plowing the north field."

"Were you carrying a gun?"

"No," Boody said, puzzled.

"That's what I thought."

Doctor Peterson was a frosty looking old chap with black rimmed specs
and a grey beard.

"You about ready to go back to town, Doc?" Robinson asked.

Peterson grinned.

"After I drink all the coffee in sight," he said. "And it looks like I
have."

Mrs. Boody was with them in the kitchen. The house was quiet.

"I've got to get gas and oil. Guess I'll follow you in," Robinson said.

"Good. The boy's all right. I'll be out again tomorrow. Ready to go?"

Outside the snow had finally stopped falling. The early morning was
clear, with a promise of a bright day to come. Robinson started his car
and warmed it up. The Doctor said good night to Mrs. Boody and came out
to climb into his Model T. Robinson backed out slowly and followed the
car down the road toward Indian River.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was just daylight. Robinson left the car a mile from Rosewood and
entered the woods. He had taken his time in town, found an all-night gas
station to refuel his car and parked it here just as the sun came up,
coloring the frosty, blue-gray hills above him.

Half a mile from the road he turned and entered the swamp where he had
found Roy the day before. He started walking swiftly. He was weaponless,
having left the rifle in his car. Two hours passed and he had penetrated
deeply into the swamp.

He was cold. He had seen no fresh trails. A black squirrel chattered at
him, and hid itself on the far side of a cedar tree. A fox hurried
across his trail, a red blurr against the snow.

Far away, he heard the sudden dry "snap" of a twig. He found a stump and
seated himself. He was very quiet. Suddenly an icy coldness penetrated
his entire body. It wasn't the wind or the natural cold that troubled
him now. It was the feeling of death--sudden death--poised only seconds
away.

Death--behind him, and he dared not look around.

He waited perhaps sixty seconds, and they seemed like hours. He stood up
very slowly and started to move his arms rhythmatically in a back and
forth motion as though to restore circulation. At the same time, he made
it evident to anyone--_anything_, looking at him, that he carried no
weapon.

Then, without betraying fear, he turned.

Not ten feet away, poised with every splendid muscle tense and alert,
was the biggest buck he had ever seen. The great animal stared at him
without fear. Its antlers were held high.

The eyes frightened Robinson. They weren't soft, brown deer eyes. They
were, instead, black and beady, like twin windows to Hell.

[Illustration: There was the baleful glint of Hell in the monster eyes]

The head swung back. The hooves pawed at the snow. With a snort, the
creature sprang into the air. Robinson ducked quickly to one side, but
there was no reason for him to flee. The phantom buck, for he was sure
the animal _was_ a phantom, moved past him with incredible speed and was
gone in the forest. He was aware of a terrific burst of speed--of a
perfectly proportioned body, and that was all.

[Illustration: With a burst of speed, the magnificent buck rushed past
him]

For a long time, Robinson stood there by the stump. All the education
that goes into a man, to bring him culture, was reviewing itself in his
mind. All the hunter instinct drained out of him. There was only
humbleness left, and respect for wild things.

He knew he would find no tracks, even though he forced himself to look
for them. Six inches of untouched snow covered the spot where the
phantom had stood.

Robinson shrugged and started back along the lengthy, circular trail to
his car.

Norm Boody came out of the house with Roy Starr's rifle. They were all
gathered beside the car. Roy, a trifle pale, was wrapped snugly, and
resting on the rear seat. Glenn Starr sat beside Roy, his arm about
Marjorie. Norma smiled at Glenn.

"I know a secret," she said.

"Better not tell it," Glenn made a pass at her with his open palm. Norma
stepped back and laughed loudly.

"Glenn's a hero. He carried Marge out of the cruel woods. He carried her
three miles, and now she's consented to marry him."

Glenn gave a war-whoop and started after her. Norma ran into the house
and slammed the door.

"You may as well face it," Robinson said. "Roy isn't so weak that he
can't kid the daylights out of you all the way home."

Pete Larson spoke from the far corner of the front seat.

       *       *       *       *       *

"How about the little secret _you're_ keeping, Earl. That was quite a
little research trip you took into the woods this morning."

Robinson looked startled.

"You didn't..."

Larson chuckled.

"When you and the doctor left last night, I was suspicious. I went down
the road this morning and located your car. _I_ took along a gun for
protection. Spent an hour in the swamp. Got tired of tracking you after
that."

Norm Boody had been studying them curiously.

"Bill said you were asking a lot of questions last night, Earl."

Larson spoke again before Robinson could answer.

"Of course we all go at things a little differently," he admitted.
"However, I got an idea that the phantom wouldn't attack a man who
didn't carry a gun. Earl left his in the car when he went into the
swamp."

Robinson nodded.

"I went into the swamp," he admitted. "I had an idea the phantom might
be sort of a ghostly protector of the herd. We have quite a slaughter of
deer up here every fall. It must be hard on them if they have any
feeling at all. What's so damn much different between men killing deer,
or a deer killing a man? If the Phantom exists, he's sort of a
protecting angel--or a God. If I had met him ..."

"You didn't?" Norm Boody asked sharply.

Earl grinned.

"If I _had_ met him," he went on, "I guess I'd do something about it. I
guess I'd think he was a pretty grand old guy, standing up to fight for
his kind. I'd probably look him over and pray for mercy, and get the
hell out of his domain. If I hunted again next year, I'd either find new
territory, or prepare to get myself killed."

Norm Boody looked solemn.

"Well, I ain't much for hunting myself," he admitted. "But if I _did_
like to hunt, and I _believed_ a story like that, I'd leave my gun at
home when I went into the woods. Ain't that the general idea?"

Roy Starr said weakly:

"Gosh, I'm getting awfully weak already. How about a shot of snakebite
medicine."

Glenn found a half bottle and passed it around.

"Might as well finish it. My wife-to-be says I gotta stop drinking as
soon as we're married."

"And where are _you_ hunting next year, Larson," Robinson asked.

Larson grinned.

"How about a good week hunting jack-rabbits? I don't think I'd be very
scared if I met the God of the jack-rabbits, even if he did shoot fire
out of the corner of his nostrils."





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