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´╗┐Title: Cold Ghost
Author: Geier, Chester S.
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 "Cold Ghost" ***

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                         Transcriber's 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.


                              COLD GHOST


                         by Chester S. Geier


     All Hager had to do was slow the dogsled to a walk, and his
     partner died. A perfect crime--no chance to get caught!

       *       *       *       *       *



In the valley, with the sheltering hills now behind them, the bitterly
cold wind drove at the sled with unchecked ferocity. Gusts of snow
came with the wind, thick and dry, the separate particles of it
stinging on contact.

[Illustration: Hager huddled before the fire, trembling with cold that
filled him with terror.]

The dogs made slow progress through the deep drifts. Hager's
smoldering irritation blazed into abrupt rage. From his position at
the rear of the sled, he lashed out with the driver's whip that he
held in one heavily mittened hand, shouting behind the wool scarf
covering the lower half of his face. The dogs lunged in their traces,
whining. A couple floundered in the powdery footing and were
immediately snapped at by their companions behind them.

The snow was falling swiftly and with a sinister steadiness. It seemed
to hang like a vast white curtain over the valley, obscuring the hills
and the fanged outline of mountains beyond. The wind seized portions
of the curtain and twisted it into fantastic shapes--the shapes of
demons, Hager thought suddenly. For the scene through which he moved
was a kind of hell, a white and frozen hell, with the howl of the wind
like the despairing shrieks of tormented souls.

Hager pictured himself as one of them. And Cahill, huddled in furs on
the sled, another. He cursed behind the scarf as he thought of Cahill.
This was Cahill's fault, their being out here in the storm. If it
weren't for Cahill, he would be back at the cabin, snug and warm, logs
blazing cheerfully in the fireplace.

It was a rotten time for Cahill to have taken sick, Hager fumed. But
it had happened. And it had left him with nothing else to do but pack
their catch of furs, harness up the sled, and start out with Cahill
for the doctor in Moose Gulch.

He almost regretted having taken the furs. With Cahill an added burden
on the sled, it was too large a load for the dogs to pull with the
necessary speed and endurance. But he hadn't dared to leave the entire
season's catch unguarded at the cabin. If some wanderer appeared in
his and Cahill's absence, the furs would be an irresistible
temptation.

Fearing, thus, to leave the furs behind, and now endangered by their
weight, Hager found the situation maddening. And the storm was making
matters worse. It was near the end of winter, but the climate had
chosen this moment to be at its most unco-operative.

Hager muttered blackly against the storm, wondering why he had allowed
his trapper's dream of wealth to lure him to this far northern corner
of Alaska. It was a cold, bleak and hostile country. Tiny settlements,
like Moose Gulch were few and far between. Of course, furs were at
their best and most plentiful here. He and Cahill had proved that, for
their catch was a large one. Hager's thoughts soared briefly above his
bitter mood as he thought of the money the furs would bring. And of
the things that the money would bring back in civilization.

Added to what he had so far managed to save, his share would make
almost enough to start a fox breeding ranch. Or a mink ranch. Almost
enough--but not quite. That meant he would have to spend another
winter in this location, and Hager flinched at the thought. He hated
loneliness and the bitter, subzero cold. Most of all he hated the
cold. Only a fur breeding ranch, with large, warm living quarters,
would have made it bearable.

Hager didn't know when the idea came to him. It must have been lying
dormant for a long time in a far, dark corner of his mind, only now
surging to the fore. Subconsciously he must have prepared himself for
this moment of inspiration. He wasn't sure. He was aware only of an
interval while he plodded behind the sled, drawn by the struggling and
panting team, cursing the dogs, cursing Cahill and the fierce cold
that mischievously searched out the most tender portions of his face
beneath the hood of his parka. There was that moment, and then--

       *       *       *       *       *

And then he found himself toying with the thought of murdering Cahill.

With the other out of the way, the entire proceeds from the sale of
furs would be his. There would be no necessity to split. He could
start the fur ranch at once. He wouldn't have to spend another winter
in this vicious cold. He--

A dozen fascinating new possibilities opened up to Hager. It was as
though he had been blind and was able to see only now. Breath-taking
vistas blossomed before his awakened eyes. There was music in what he
visioned, music and the voices of women, bright lights, color,
movement, and the warmth of gentler climes.

The brightest part of the picture was that Cahill's death need not be
outright murder. The man was sick. His life depended on getting him
into the hands of the doctor in Moose Gulch as quickly as possible.

If Hager were simply to delay in reaching the settlement, Cahill would
die as surely as though from the thrust of a knife or the impact of a
bullet. Exposure to the biting cold would finish him. And nobody would
know. Hager could always claim that he had hurried as best he could
under the difficult, hampering circumstances of the storm, but that
Cahill had died on the way. As easy as that. If Marshal Art Maddox
stuck his long nose into the matter, Cahill's unmarked body would be
proof that there had been no foul play.

Hager felt satisfied that his scheme was without loopholes. The idea
had become a definite plan. And now his square lips hardened with
determination behind the scarf. He looked at Cahill, dozing feverishly
on the sled, with deep-set gray eyes that were bleak and implacable.

Cahill would never reach Moose Gulch alive.

With his grim purpose giving new drive to his actions, Hager glanced
about him. It was difficult to see through the curtain of snow that
hung between him and the landscape, but by squinting steadily through
momentary rifts made by the frigid, lashing wind, he was able
presently to discern that they were near the pass leading out of the
valley. Beyond the pass, he knew, was a forest, dipping down to the
banks of a frozen stream. The stream ran for several miles until it
branched into a river, which in turn led directly into Moose Gulch.
With these landmarks to guide him, a traveler through the snow-bound
wilderness could reach the settlement easily and quickly. But Hager
didn't intend to do that. He now had time to kill. He chuckled darkly
over the accuracy of the phrase.

Plodding toward the pass, he deliberately slowed his steps. He no
longer used the whip or shouted at the dogs for greater speed. The
animals were grateful for the respite. They slackened their pace,
tongues lolling and bushy tails waving as they bobbed in their plowed
path through the white drifts.

Cahill dozed on. Once or twice he moved restlessly amid the furs piled
about him. It was as though some deep, vague instinct warned him that
something was wrong.

Hager watched the other sharply for a time, then desisted to give his
attention to maneuvering the sled through the pass. The forest
appeared, the trees wraith-like under their thick, white mantles of
snow. Hager didn't follow the dip in the land that led toward the
frozen stream. He guided the dogs in the opposite direction and began
watching Cahill again. He hoped that the man would not awake until
less familiar territory surrounded them.

Cahill didn't awake. He dozed and tossed, his lips moving occasionally
in a soundless mutter. His gaunt, leathery face was pale under its
growth of grizzled whiskers.

The snow-covered land rose, became rocky and difficult. The dogs began
laboring with increasing weariness in their efforts to keep pulling
the heavy sled. Hager realized he couldn't go in this direction much
longer. When a ravine suddenly presented itself, relatively free of
snow, he decided to call a halt.

       *       *       *       *       *

Unfastening the dogs, he left the ravine and began searching through
the snow for brushwood. It took time, but Hager was in no hurry. He
gathered an armful and finally returned to the sled.

Cahill was awake. He had propped himself feebly among the furs, his
gaunt face blank and drab with sickness. His filmed blue eyes fastened
on Hager.

"Water," he whispered. "Water, Matt."

"Coming up," Hager said. "Just you wait a minute, Ben, and you'll get
all the water you want."

Cahill fell back among the furs, and Hager leisurely shaved kindling
and stacked the wood and then set it ablaze. The ravine was shielded
from the wind, and the wood ignited without difficulty. At last Hager
went to the sled and removed the small pack he had fortunately thought
to bring along. His experience with the wilderness had trained him
never to overlook the smallest precautions.

Hager took a handled pan from the pack. He filled it with snow and
then held the pan over the flames. When the snow melted, he filled a
tin cup with the liquid and went over to Cahill. He had to steady the
cup as the other drank.

Finally Cahill nodded. His eyes seemed to clear. He glanced about him,
and a dim worry moved in his face.

"Matt, where are we?"

"Somewhere near Boot Valley."

"You ... you mean we're lost?"

"I sort of got mixed up in the storm. Nothing to worry about."

Cahill shivered suddenly. "We got to reach town, Matt. Got to see the
doctor."

Hager nodded. "How do you feel?"

"It's getting worse. I can feel it getting worse. I'm cold now, Matt.
Before ... before I was...." Cahill's voice trailed off. He had to
make an effort before he was able to speak again. "Got ... got to see
the doctor, Matt. Can't waste any time."

"I know," Hager said. "But the team needs a little rest. They've had a
lot of heavy hauling, and there's still a distance to go."

Cahill nodded miserably, shivering. He burrowed into the furs, still
shivering, breathing rapidly through parted lips. Slowly the chill
left him. His eyes clouded again. Then his lids fell, and he dozed
once more.

Hager brewed tea and drank it slowly, squatting before the fire. Then
he packed and lighted his pipe. He stared into the flames with
narrowed eyes, seeing his dreams pictured there. They were pleasant
dreams.

Hager remained in the ravine until the supply of wood was gone. Then
he fastened the dogs back into their traces and resumed his position
behind the sled. With shouts and cracks of the whip, he guided the
animals out of the ravine, following the downward slope of the land
this time.

The snow stopped falling after a while, but the wind and the cold
increased. The cold hung on the air like an enormous, transparent
weight. Somehow it seemed to give an impossible crystalline purity to
the snow blanketing the trees and the land. In doing so, it emphasized
and magnified its very presence. It made itself something almost alive
and sentient, icily malignant, overbearing, utterly cruel and without
mercy.

Hager cursed the cold with redoubled venom. Despite the thickness of
his fur parka and the layers of clothing beneath the cold seemed to
soak into him like an all-penetrating liquid. He had to wave his arms
and stamp his feet to fight back a creeping numbness.

       *       *       *       *       *

But the terrible chill could not subdue the flame of purpose burning
in Hager's mind. That part of him remained keenly alert. The sled was
moving in the direction of the stream, and he was careful to judge the
distance carefully. He didn't want to approach too close. At just the
right moment he turned the sled at angle back toward the way from
which it had come. It was his plan to keep zigzagging, approaching the
stream and then retreating, always at a tangent. A great deal of time
would be consumed in this way, with very little actual forward
progress toward Moose Gulch.

He repeated this maneuver again and again. Cahill roused a few times
to inquire weakly about their progress. Always Hager gave the same
answer.

"We're getting there, Ben. It won't be long now. Don't you worry."

After that Cahill was silent. It seemed evident to Hager that the man
was sinking rapidly. But not as rapidly as Hager wished. He knew he
couldn't bear the paralyzing cold much longer, and his hatred of it
grew.

The sled reached a group of slab-like rock outcroppings that offered
shelter from the slashing wind. Hager stopped the sled behind their
protection for a short rest. The additional delay suited his plans.

While the dogs huddled together in the snow, Hager went around the
sled to get the pack. He glanced at Cahill's face--and his muscles
became tense. Cahill's eyes were open. Cahill was watching him with a
terrible steadiness and a soul-searing clarity. Cahill ... _knew_.

Hager realized that Cahill must have been awake for quite some time,
watching the actions of the sled. The man had clearly discovered
Hager's deception.

Hager felt transfixed by the accusing brightness in the other's eyes.
He sensed that his guilt was written vividly and unmistakably in his
face. He fumbled for words that would form an excuse, an apology, some
sort of plausible lie--anything that would remove the dreadful
knowledge in Cahill's eyes. But no words came.

After a strained, bitter moment Cahill spoke. His voice was low, yet
somehow curiously distinct. "You're trying to kill me, Matt. I see it
now. You aren't going straight toward Moose Gulch. You're tracking
back and forth to waste time. You ... want me to die!"

"That isn't true," Hager blurted. "I ... I got lost. The storm and
cold got me mixed up."

Cahill went on as though he hadn't heard. "It's the furs, isn't it,
Matt? You want all the money for yourself. With me out of the way, you
won't have any trouble."

"I got mixed up, I tell you," Hager insisted.

Cahill said nothing further. With a burst of energy as sudden as it
was amazing, he gripped the sides of the sled and began pushing
himself erect. His strangely clear eyes were fixed on Hager.

Mastering a brief surge of panic, Hager threw himself forward, forcing
Cahill back into the sled. Cahill struggled a moment, but the reserve
strength he had managed to summon quickly gave out. He fell back into
the sled and lay limp and quiet, his eyes closed, breathing harshly
and rapidly.

Hager watched for several minutes, the cold creeping slyly into him
with the inactivity. Then, assured that Cahill would make no further
trouble, he obtained the pack. He fed the dogs this time, tossing them
pieces of dried meat. They would need renewed strength and energy to
take him the remaining distance to Moose Gulch. Finally, gathering
brushwood, Hager built a small fire and brewed tea. He ate a couple of
thick sandwiches as he drank the tea, chewing with methodic slowness
and glancing at Cahill.

       *       *       *       *       *

The other hadn't stirred since making his accusation. But when Hager
finished eating, Cahill's eyes opened once more. He looked at Hager
for a long, breathless moment. Only a vestige of the unnatural
brightness that had been in his eyes remained now. With what must have
required a tremendous effort, he spoke.

"You aren't going to get away with this, Matt. I ... I'm going to get
you. I'm going to make you pay."

A moment longer Cahill looked at Hager. And then the last remnant of
brightness left his eyes. His lids fell slowly. He looked exhausted
and seemed to be resting. But several minutes later, acting on a
sudden realization, Hager felt for Cahill's pulse and found that the
man was dead.

Triumph spread through Hager like a heady warmth. It was over. The
money from the furs would be his alone. He would have the fur ranch,
now. But there was no hurry about that. He would travel a little first
and have some fun.

The best part of it was that he would never have to worry. Cahill's
body was completely unmarked. It was very obvious that he had died of
illness. There couldn't possibly be any suspicions.

Then Hager recalled the threat Cahill had made before dying. Cahill
had promised revenge, but there was nothing he could do now. Hager
shrugged the memory away. The dead were dead. They could do no harm.

Hager now lost no time in reaching Moose Gulch. He drove the dogs
relentlessly, trotting behind the sled. Elation gave him a strength
that took him easily over the miles.

A short time before he entered the settlement it began to snow again.
Hager was pleased. The snow would cover up the tracks he had left in
the event that Art Maddox did any snooping.

He went directly to the doctor's home, carrying the body of Cahill
inside. He cleverly played the part of a man reluctant to believe that
his partner had died.

"Isn't there something you can do, Doc?" he asked anxiously. "Maybe it
isn't too late."

The other straightened from his examination of Cahill and shook his
white thatch. His round, ruddy features were sympathetic. "I'm afraid
it's all over. Ben Cahill's as dead as he'll ever be. Most likely he
passed away some time before you were able to reach town. Nothing left
to do now but turn him over to the undertaker. That's me, in case you
don't know. In Moose Gulch it takes two, three jobs to keep a man
fairly busy."

Hager sighed and looked properly grief-stricken. "Well, I'll leave you
to take care of things, Doc. Do a good job--nothing but the best, you
know. Ben was the finest partner a man could ever have."

Hager left and proceeded to visit acquaintances in the settlement,
spreading the news of Cahill's death. He was showered with
condolences, which he accepted with a suitable air of melancholy.
Later, eating supper in the tiny dining room of Moose Gulch's small,
frame hotel, he was joined at the table by Art Maddox.

The marshal was a tall, raw-boned man with a long nose and protruding
eyes that looked deceptively mild. His presence filled Hager with a
vague dread.

"Heard Ben Cahill took sick and died while you were bringing him into
town," Maddox began. "Sure is too bad. How did it happen?"

Hager explained, adhering closely to essential facts, though he
omitted certain others and stretched a point here and there. He
finished, "I tried to get Ben into town as fast as I could, but it was
snowing hard and I almost got lost a couple of times. Ben was sick
bad, and with the cold and all, he died on the way."

"It kind of looks like you expected that to happen," Maddox said.

Hager grew tense. "What do you mean?"

"The way you took the furs along kind of makes it look like you
expected Ben Cahill to die. Besides, you ought to have known that the
furs would slow you down on the trip to town."

"I was afraid to leave the furs at the cabin," Hager defended.
"Suppose somebody stole them while me and Ben were gone? A whole
season's catch. I just couldn't take a chance."

Maddox nodded with evident reluctance. "That's true enough, I guess. I
was just sort of wondering about it." He stood up. "Well, sorry to
have bothered you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hager made a generous gesture. "No bother at all." He watched as
Maddox left the room, grinning inwardly. Maddox apparently suspected
something in his snooping, suspicious way, but the only point of
attack he'd been able to find was one for which Hager had a
satisfactory explanation. Hager felt certain that he wouldn't be
questioned again. And with the snow blotting out the erratic trail the
sled had left, he was confident that he had nothing to fear from
Maddox any longer.

The grin crept out around his square lips. He was safe. He had
committed the perfect crime.

Hager checked in at the hotel, and after a pleasant evening spent at
one of Moose Gulch's two saloons, he returned and went to bed. He had
a restless night. The hotel was warm enough, and the covers on the bed
thick, but a strange feeling of cold seemed to envelop him. And though
he emptied the bottle of whisky he had brought with him, the cold
persisted.

He slept fitfully. Once he dreamed that he was tied, naked, to the
sled and being driven by Cahill through a terrific snow storm. The
cold was so intense it seared him like fire. He awoke, shivering, a
vivid recollection of Cahill's gaunt, accusing features in his mind.
Again he seemed to hear Cahill's dying promise.

"_You aren't going to get away with this, Matt. I'm going to get you.
I'm going to make you pay._"

And now, shuddering with that weird cold that seemed to enclose him
like a huge, vengeful fist, Hager wondered.

The cold remained with him in the days that followed. It not only
remained. It grew more unbearable.

Hager began to have a persecuted feeling. The cold stayed with him
wherever he went. Even near hot stoves, or in heated rooms, he felt
chilled. No one else seemed to notice it. The cold seemed intended for
him alone. More and more, he wondered about Cahill's threat.

He was materialistic. He didn't believe in ghosts. But he knew that
he was being haunted by an unnatural cold that nobody else seemed
able to feel.

He cast about for a method of escaping the cold. The obvious solution
was to leave Moose Gulch, as he had intended all along. In his mind
the cold was somehow connected with the settlement, through Cahill,
who was buried there. A trip to one of the warm, southern regions in
the States, he decided, should bring relief.

He sold the furs and with the money took passage on a plane that
operated between the settlement and a large town some distance away.
Continuing to travel by plane, he presently arrived in Seattle.

Still the cold remained with him. The miles he had put between Moose
Gulch and himself hadn't done any good.

Nothing seemed to help. Heavy clothes, nourishing foods, whisky,
vigorous exercise--nothing brought him the warmth he was beginning to
crave as an addict craves dope.

Desperately, he resumed his trip, traveling by air and then by train,
and finally grasping at any means of transportation that happened to
be most convenient. The cold traveled with him. It enveloped him like
a shell. It was an invisible prison, shutting him away from the world
of warmth.

The climate grew increasingly mild and balmy as he progressed
southward. But the chill that always surrounded him grew worse.

More often, now, he thought of Cahill's grim promise. "_I'm going to
get you. I'm going to make you pay._" It repeated itself over and over
in his mind. It was emphasized by the invisible blanket of cold
wrapped inescapably about him.

Once, in a hotel room where he had been drinking steadily, Hager's
despair rose in him to the point of madness. He leaped from the bed,
hurling an empty whisky bottle against the wall, screaming mingled
curses and entreaties.

"Damn you, Cahill, leave me alone! Haven't you had enough? How much
longer are you going to keep torturing me? Leave me alone, do you
hear? Leave me alone!"

Cahill didn't seem to hear. Or if he did, he paid no attention. The
cold stayed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hager began to lose weight. His stocky figure became gaunt, his cheeks
sunken. Dark hollows cupped his feverishly bright eyes. His hands
trembled. He jerked nervously at sudden noises.

In Los Angeles he yielded to a wild impulse and visited a doctor. He
explained his symptoms, omitting their true cause, and pleaded for
help.

The doctor gave him a complete physical examination, though it was
evident from the man's expression of perplexity that he had learned
nothing. "I can't understand it," he told Hager. "There's nothing
seriously wrong with you. All you need is plenty of food and rest.
You're probably just imagining things."

Hager groaned, paid his bill, and fled.

Several days later found him in Mexico. It was warm--but he didn't
feel it. He knew with a terrible certainty that he would never feel
warmth again. And he was tired of futilely trying to escape something
from which there was no escape. He rented a small house on the
outskirts of a town far from the Border and hired an elderly Mexican
named Pancho to attend to his needs.

Pancho was a good servant. But he was evidently greatly puzzled by
Hager. According to the stories Pancho told his cronies in the town,
his _gringo_ master insisted that a hot fire be kept going constantly
in the fireplace. And in this warm weather, too! As if that alone
wasn't enough, the _gringo_ also kept himself wrapped thickly in
blankets. It was all very strange. The _gringo_, he said, was being
tormented by a demon.

The people of the town, a simple folk to whom the supernatural was as
real as the sun in the sky, were sympathetic. A priest at the church
promptly volunteered his aid. He had, as Pancho subsequently explained
to Hager when he appeared with the man, an enviable reputation for his
skill in exorcizing devils and evil spirits.

Hager seized at the hope. He clutched at the priest eagerly.

"Try it! Pray for me! Do something--anything!"

The priest nodded gravely and began his task.

It worked.

Hager felt warm again.

A wild delight filled him. For the first time he became aware that the
room was stifling, but the mere fact that he was able to feel it
seemed the most wonderful thing in the world. He had a sense of
freedom as complete as though he had been released into the sunlight
after long confinement in a lightless dungeon.

He wrung the priest's hand, forced money on him, and then told Pancho
he was throwing a _fiesta_ for the entire town that evening. Pancho
was to take care of the details immediately. No expense was to be
spared.

For the rest of the day, Hager soaked himself in the sunlight,
reveling in the delicious warmth. And when evening came he attended
the _fiesta_ in high spirits. He ate _tortillas_, drank wine, and
danced with innumerable dark-eyed _senoritas_.

It was late when he returned to the house with Pancho. He found a
robed figure waiting patiently at the door. It was the priest.
Something about the man's solemn expression filled Hager with dread.

"What's the matter?" he demanded. "Has something happened?"

In his halting English, Pancho translated the gist of the priest's
explanation. "The _padre_ say he no can help you, _senor_. He say he
have how you call vision. It tell him you must pay."

There was more. But Hager didn't need any more to know that he was
being refused further help for the crime he had committed.

A short while after the priest left he felt the cold again.

Pancho built a fire in the fireplace, and Hager crouched before it,
huddled in blankets and shivering. He was still there when Pancho went
to bed. And he was still there when Pancho awoke in the morning. But
he was no longer shivering. He no longer felt the cold.

He was dead.

It had been a warm night. The fire had been, hot, the blankets
numerous and thick. Yet Hager had _frozen_ to death.

       *       *       *       *       *





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