To THE HUNTER, who had examined in detail both the bones of the unfortunate Tip and ‘the splintered stick which had injured his own host so badly, the whole thing
Bob had been lying motionless for some time when they were disturbed by a voice calling his name. The boy started to spring to his feet and almost collapsed as the injured leg sent a furious protest.
“I forgot we were meeting Norman!” he said. “He must have gotten tired waiting, and is coming uphill after us.” More gingerly this time he put weight on the injured limb-a thing no doctor would have recommended and to which the Hunter also objected. “I can’t help it,” said Bob. “If you write me off as a cripple, they’ll put me in bed and we can’t do a thing. Ill favor it as much as I can-it can’t get infected with you there and will just have more trouble growing together, won’t it?”
“Isn’t that enough? I admit that no permanent damage should result, but-“
“No buts! If anyone learns how bad this is they’ll send me to the doctor; and he simply won’t believe I made it home without bleeding to death. You’ve done too much to remain concealed from him now if he gets a chance to look me over!” The boy began limping downhill, and the Hunter pondered over the sad fact that the active member of a partnership was too apt to take control, regardless of qualifications.
Somewhat later it occurred to him that there might be worse things than the doctor’s learning of his presence; it might even give them a most valuable ally. There was certainly enough evidence at the moment to prove to a stupider person than Dr. Seever that the Hunter was more than a figment of Bob’s imagination. Unfortunately, by the time the thought occurred to him, it was too late to mention it-Bob and Hay had met.
“Where have you been?” was the greeting of Norman. “What happened to you? I got my bike and have been waiting in front of your house long enough to grow a beard. Did you get hung up on the thorns, or what?”
“I had a fall,” Bob replied with perfect truth, “and hurt my leg a bit. It was a while before I could use it.”
“Oh, I see. Is it all right now?”
“No, not quite. I can get around, I guess. I can ride a bike, anyway. Let’s get back down to the house and pick mine up.”
The meeting had taken place at no great distance from the Kinnaird house, since Hay had not dared go very far into the jungle for fear of missing Bob altogether. It took them only a minute or two to reach the dwelling, in spite of Bob’s limp, and, once there, it proved fairly easy to ride the bicycle provided Bob mounted from the left and pedaled with the instep of his right foot instead of the toe.
They made their way up to the construction site, amusing each other the while with speculation on the troubles the others would be having getting the swamped boat through the breakers at the beach, and began prowling for materials. These proved fairly plentiful, and well before suppertime they had placed the articles of their choice in a number of inconspicuous places, to insure their remaining unused until after school the next day. They were honest youngsters, in their way.
Two things happened to prevent Bob’s getting back to the site immediately after school. One of them occurred Monday morning, when his father saw him limping as he descended to breakfast, and demanded the cause. Bob repeated the story he had given Hay; but the next demand was a little awkward.
“Let’s see it.” Bob, thinking fast, pulled his trouser leg halfway to the knee, exposing the entry wound. This, of course, did not look nearly so bad as it should have, since the Hunter had held the torn skin in place all night and was still on duty. To the boy’s vast relief Mr. Kinnaird did not ask about the depth of the injury, taking for granted that nothing so obviously free from blood clots and infection could have been very deep. The relief was short-lived, however. The man turned away, saying, “All right. If you’re still limping the next tune I see you, you’d better be able to tell me you’ve seen Doc Seever.” The Hunter’s respect for Mr. Kinnaird was increasing daily.
Bob set out for school with that problem on his mind -nothing was more certain than the fact that his torn calf muscle would keep him limping for days to come, Hunter or no Hunter; and his father would certainly be at the construction site that afternoon. At the end of school another cause for delay materialized: the teacher who handled the older pupils requested that he remain for a time, so that his proper position in the group might be discovered. Bob requested a moment’s excuse, hastily explained to the others, and saw them started for the new tank; then he returned to the schoolroom for the inquisition. It took some time. As frequently happens when a pupil changes from one school to another, the difference in programs had put him a year or so ahead in some subjects and as far behind in others. By the time a mutually satisfactory program had been worked out, Bob was pretty sure his friends would have obtained what they needed and taken it to the creek.
Even so, there remained the problem of the limp and his father’s ultimatum. He had been trying all day to walk as though nothing were the matter, and had succeeded only in attracting more attention. He stood at the doorway of the school for some minutes, pondering this problem, and finally put it up to the Hunter. He was distinctly startled at the alien’s answer.
“I suggest that you do exactly what your father said- go to Dr. Seever.”
“But how can we get away with that? He’s no dumbbell, and you won’t make him believe in miracles. He won’t be satisfied just to see one of those holes, either-hell check the whole leg. How will I account for the shape it’s in without telling about you?”
“I have been thinking about that. Just what, would you say, is wrong with the idea of telling him about me?”
“I don’t want to be written off as cracked, that’s what I had trouble enough believing in you myself.”
“You’ll probably never have better evidence for your story than you have right now, if the doctor is as thorough as you say. I will back you up; and / can prove I am here to anyone’s satisfaction, if necessary. I know we have been making strenuous efforts all along to keep my presence secret, and the reasons for that are still sound; I don’t mean to broadcast the story. I think, however, that a doctor might be a remarkably good associate in our work. He has knowledge neither of us possesses and should be willing to use it-it is certainly no exaggeration to describe our quarry as a dangerous disease.”
“And if he turns out to be the host of our quarry?”
“He is certainly one of the least likely candidates on the island. However, if that should be the case- I think I can find out very quickly and certainly. There is certainly a precaution we can take.” He outlined this precaution at length to his host, and Bob nodded slowly in understanding.
The doctor’s office was not far from the school. It would hardly have been worth using the bicycle had it not been for Bob’s injury. There was a slight delay caused by the presence of another patient, then Bob and his invisible guest entered the pleasant room which Dr. Seever had turned into a consulting room and dispensary.
“Back again so soon, Bob?” greeted the doctor. “Is that sunburn still giving trouble?”
“No, sir, I’d forgotten about that.”
“Not entirely, I hope.” The two grinned in sympathy.
“This is something else. I had a fall in the woods yesterday, and Dad said I’d better either see you or stop limping.”
“All right, let’s see the damage.” Bob seated himself in a chair facing the doctor and rolled up his trouser leg. At first Dr. Seever did not see the exit wound, but after a moment he did. He examined both openings carefully and at considerable length, then he sat back and eyed the boy.
“Let’s have the story.”
“I was up in the woods, near the head of the first creek. The bank had been undercut farther than I thought, and I broke through, and a sharp-pointed branch underneath went into my leg.”
” Through’ is the word you want. Go on.”
“There’s not much else. It hasn’t bothered me too much, so I didn’t come to you until Dad made me.”
“I see.” The doctor was silent for another minute or two. Then, “Did something like this happen at school back in the States?”
“We-e-11-” It never occurred to Bob to pretend not to know what the doctor meant “There was this.” He extended the arm that had been cut the night the Hunter had made his first attempt at communication. The doctor silently examined the thin, barely visible scar.
“How long ago?”
“Three weeks about.” Another period of silence, while Bob wondered what was going on in the other’s mind. The Hunter thought he knew.
“You’ve discovered, then, that there’s something unusual about you-something you couldn’t understand; something that made injuries which should need stitches behave like scratches and punctures that should put you flat on your back ‘not bother you much’; and you’ve been worried about it? Was that what got into you at school?”
“Not exactly, sir. You’re almost right, but-I know what causes it.” With the Rubicon crossed, Bob went ahead quickly and clearly with his story, and the doctor listened in rapt silence. At the end he had some questions.
“You have not seen this-Hunter yourself?”
“No. He won’t show himself to me. Says it might disturb my emotions.”
“I think I can see his point. Do you mind being blindfolded for a little while?” Bob made no objection, and the doctor found a bandage and tied it over his eyes. Then: “Please put your hand-either one-on the table here, palm up; let it relax. Now-Hunter, you understand what I want!”
The Hunter understood clearly enough and acted accordingly. Bob could see nothing, of course, but after a moment he felt a faint weight in the palm of the extended hand. His fingers started to close on it instinctively, and the doctor’s hand promptly descended to pin them in place. “Hold on a moment, Bob.” For a short time the weight could be detected, then the boy began to doubt whether or not it was actually there-it was rather like a pencil stowed behind the ear, which can be felt after it is gone. When the blindfold was removed, nothing was visible, but the doctor’s face was even more sober than before.
“All right, Bob,” he said. “Part of your story appears to be true anyway. Now, can you enlarge on this mission of your friend?”
“First, there is something I have to say,” replied Bob. “This is really his speech, and I’ll try to give it in his own words, as near as I can remember.
“You have been convinced, at least in one essential, of the truth of this story. You must be able to see why the secret has been kept so far and the risk we chose to face in telling you. There is certainly a chance, however small, that you are actually the person harboring our quarry.
“In that event, we see two possibilities. Either you know of his presence and are consciously co-operating with him because he has convinced you of the justice of his position, or you do not know. In the first case, you are now planning means to get rid of me. Your guest would be perfectly willing to do anything to my host in the process, but I know you would not; and that presents you with a problem that will take time to solve and will probably betray the truth to me in your attempts to solve it.
“In the second case, Doctor, your host now knows where I am. He also knows that you are a doctor, and will find some means to detect his presence in your body if anyone can. That, I fear, will mean that we have placed you in danger, for he will have no hesitation in doing whatever he thinks necessary to escape. I cannot suggest any precautions to you; you should be able to think of some yourself. Don’t mention them aloud, though.
“I am sorry to have exposed you to this risk, but it seems to me to be one that falls within your normal duty as a doctor. If, however, you are not willing to take it, simply say so. We will leave at once. We will, of course, test you at the first opportunity; but with the fear of immediate discovery no longer pressing, he may at least leave your body without harming you, since he will be in no hurry. What is your decision?”
Dr. Seever did not hesitate an instant.
“I’ll take any risks there may be. I think I can see how to test myself too. According to your story, you have been in Bob’s body nearly six months; and your quarry, if he is in mine at all, is likely to have been there for several weeks at least. That is long enough for the formation of specific antibodies-you say you are, in effect, a virus. I can make a serum test with a sample of Bob’s blood and my own that should give us an answer at once. Have you learned enough medical English to gather what I mean?”
Bob replied slowly, reading off the Hunter’s answer as it came. “I know what you mean. Unfortunately, your plan won’t work. If we had not long ago learned how to prevent the formation of antibodies for our particular cells, our way of life would never have been possible.”
The doctor frowned at this. “I should have thought of that. I suppose there’s no use expecting your friend to let any of his own tissue be caught in a section or a blood sample, either.” He looked up sharply. “How did you plan to make identification? You must have some method.”
Bob explained the Hunter’s difficulty in that direction, then the alien finished: “I intended, when reasonably certain, to make a final check by personal inspection. He certainly could not hide for any length of time if I went into the same body in search of him.”
“Then why not check me that way? I know you have no particular reason to suspect me, but it would be just as well to know one way or the other. You would know then that you could trust me; and, frankly, I should like to know myself. I’ve been rather afraid these last few minutes that I might find out the hard way as soon as you two leave the office.”
“Your point is a good one,” relayed Bob. “But the Hunter will not enter or leave any human body while its owner is awake. You seem to sympathize with him on that.” The doctor nodded slowly, looking thoughtfully at his visible guest.
“Yes. Yes, I understand his reason. However, that situation can be arranged also.” Dr. Seever left his chair and went to the front door, taking a small placard from a wall stand as he passed it. This he placed on a hook outside the door, closed and locked the latter, and returned to the office. He looked at Bob again, then went over to one of the numerous small cabinets.
“How much do you weigh, Bob?” he asked over his shoulder. The boy told him, and he made a brief calculation in his head, then he reached for a bottle of clearliquid. With this in his hand he turned back to the visitors.
“Hunter, I don’t know whether this stuff will affect you as well. I would suggest that you get out of Bob’s alimentary and circulatory systems before we take it. We will sleep for from one to two hours-I suppose that’s longer than necessary, but I can’t guarantee that any smaller dose would put us out at all. You can make your test while we’re unconscious and get back to tell us the result-or maybe do something else, if necessary. All right? We won’t be disturbed-I’ve seen to that.”
“I’m afraid it is not quite all right,” was the answer. “It means that my host would be helpless before I know for certain about you. However, I will concede that the test should be made, and I will relax my demand somewhat to get it over with. If you and Bob will sit side by side, holding hands tightly, and guarantee that you will not separate those hands for twenty minutes, I will shift • enough of myself into your body to make the inspection and return.”
The doctor agreed instantly-he had intended to use the drug only because of the Hunter’s insistence that the hosts be insensible, and this alternative was both safer and pleasanter. He moved his chair out beside Robert’s, therefore, took one of the boy’s hands in his own, dropped the bandage that had served as a blindfold over the two hands as an added safeguard for the Hunter’s peace of mind, and relaxed.
It took a little more than the promised twenty minutes, but to their relief the Hunter was able to give a negative report. Discussion for the first time flowed freely-at least between Bob and the doctor-and the general conditions of the problem were thrashed over so thoroughly that Dr. Seever almost forgot about Bob’s injured leg. It was only at the end of the visit that he mentioned it.
“As I understand it, Bob, your friend can do nothing to speed up the processes of healing; he simply prevents bleeding and infection. My advice is to stay off that leg- you gave the muscle an awful beating.”
“The only trouble is,” said Bob, “I seem to be transportation division for this army and am vehicle for the commander in chief. I can’t be immobilized.”
“Well, it will certainly slow up the healing; I can’t see that any other damage will result, under the circumstances. Use your own judgment; I know the situation is serious for someone. Just keep off it as much as possible.” The doctor closed the door behind them and returned to his study, where he speedily immersed himself in a work on immunology. Maybe the Hunter’s people knew what to do about antibodies, but there were other tricks to the medical trade.
It was not quite suppertime, and Bob and the Hunter made their way to the creek, where the boys should be. A sound of sawing gave evidence well before Bob was close enough to see that they were there; but work stopped as he came in sight.
“Where have you been? You’ve certainly ducked out of a lot of work this afternoon. Look at the boat!”
Bob looked. There was very little boat to see, as a matter of fact, for the removal of the bad timber had accounted for a remarkable percentage of the total, and very little replacement had as yet been accomplished. There was a reason for this, Bob noticed: there was very little replacement material on hand.
“Where’s the stuff we picked out last night?” he asked Hay.
“A good question,” said the other dryly. “Some of it was where we put it, and that’s right here now. The rest had disappeared. I don’t know whether the young kids cleaned it out or the men found it and used it. We didn’t stay to get more; we thought we’d better get what was left down here and use it before it disappeared too. Well have to go back for more-there isn’t nearly enough here to finish.”
“You’re telling me,” said Bob, looking at the rather forlorn framework lying on the beach before them. Its state reminded him of something else, and he turned to Rice.
“Red, I’m afraid I found Tip yesterday.” The others laid down the tools with which they had been about to resume activity and listened with interest.
“Up in the woods, near the head of the creek. I had my fall just afterward and forgot everything else, or I’d have told you this morning. I don’t really know it was Tip, since there wasn’t much left, but it was a dog about his size. I’ll show you the place after supper if you like-there isn’t time now.”
‘Could you tell what killed him?” Rice had long since accepted the fact of the dog’s death.
“No. Your guess is as good as mine when you’ve seen him. I think Sherlock Holmes himself would have trouble finding clues, but you can try.”
The news put a final stop to work on the boat for that afternoon. As Bob had said, suppertime was approaching, anyway, and presently the group drifted back up the creek to the road, and its members went their ways. Rice, before vanishing, called after Bob a reminder that they were to visit the woods after the meal.
As it happened, everybody was there. Their curiosity had been aroused by Bob’s extremely sketchy description of what he had found, and they all wanted to see. Bob led the way slowly along the path to the creek and up the watercourse to the point where he had had his accident, which he pointed out. Hay, groping curiously down the hole, encountered the branch which had caused so much trouble, and after considerable effort got the vertical part out.
“You just missed some bad trouble with this,” he remarked, holding it up to view. Bob indicated his leg-the boys had all seen the lower puncture; as he had done with his father, he had avoided mentioning the other.
“I didn’t quite miss it,” he said. “I suppose that’s what did this.” Hay looked more closely at the stick. The sun was on the point of setting and the woods were already rather dark, but he saw the stains left from the accident.
“I guess you’re right at that,” he said. “You must have been a while pulling out: blood has gone down this thing a foot or more from the sharp end. I wonder why I didn’t notice it on your pants leg when I met you yesterday.”
“I don’t know,” Bob lied hastily, and began leading the way from the creek along the edge of the thicket. The other three followed, and Hay, after a moment, shrugged his shoulders, dropped the branch, and trailed along.
He found the others grouped around the skeleton of the dog exchanging theories. Bob, who had brought them here with a definite purpose in mind, was watching all the others sharply. He himself was quite sure, in spite of what the Hunter had said about the bones, that Tip had been killed by their quarry, who had then rigged the trap into which he had fallen. He even had an explanation for the fact that there had been no attempt to enter his body while he was helpless-the alien had found another host first: a host who used the creek as a highway through the jungle, as Bob and his friends used it. That implied, of course, that one of those friends had been in the neighborhood and motionless for some reason long enough for the creature’s purpose. Bob had not heard of such an incident, but was hoping that here and now, if ever, someone might refer to it.
It was rapidly growing dark now, and the only conclusion reached by the boys was the obvious one that nothing much larger than insect life had disturbed the dog’s body. No one had actually touched the bones as yet, but with seeing growing more difficult by the moment Malmstrom decided to get a closer look. The skull was inside the thicket, but it was this he chose to examine, and he reached very gingerly among the thorns to pick it up.
Getting in gave little trouble, but it developed that the thorns on the short side branches pointed back in toward the main stems. This furnished about as efficient and unpleasant a trap as one could well hope not to encounter, and Malmstrom picked up several very nasty scratches as he withdrew hand and skull. He handed the latter to Colby and shook the injured member.
“There’s something that would make a good fish spear,” he remarked. “The darned thorns fold back against the branches easily enough, but they spring out again when you pull the other way. I bet that’s what happened to Tip -he chased something in here and couldn’t pull out.”
The theory was a reasonable one, and even Bob was impressed, by it. He suddenly remembered that he had not told his other idea to the doctor; what would Seever’s opinion be? Perhaps by now he had worked out some medical test, and there would be no difficulty for him in finding an excuse to use it. Bob had hoped to give him some line on whom to test first; now he did not know what to think. He led the way back downhill in the darkness, his brain working furiously.