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Ray Of Eternity


Vingie and Ron Sherman came down
into the valley searching for her father.
They found instead a terrible desolation,
and an incredible menace.

The Prophet

"LOOK!" Vingie Sherman seized Vingie and Ron Sherman came down info the valley searching for her father. They found instead a terrible desolation, and an incredible menace her young husband's arm so violently that his grip was dangerously shaken on the steering wheel. The big, black sedan was creeping in second down a winding, canyon-side trail above a yawning drop-off of several hundred feet.

Ron Sherman stamped on the brake pedal so abruptly that the big car bumped its own axle buffers. He didn't need to look twice. Vingie was pointing out the window like the charming youngest of Fate's three sisters.

Several hundred yards away and down from the raw bluff they were descending, in a clear space between irrigated trees, was a high, woven-wire fence, like a poultry run. Half a dozen or more dogs of indeterminate breeds milled around nervously inside the fence. A tall man in a wide-brimmed hat stood facing the dogs. He held something in front of him like a huge camera.

The two on the canyon trail had scarcely 'grasped the salient details of the scene, when they realized that something damnably uncanny was happening to' those dogs. The poor brute-s acted as if they had rabies. One howled piteously. Those dogs were stiffening somehow, staggering, swaying. Yes, they were actually shriveling, shrinking in size before their very eyes.

They were looking at dogs—gaunt specters of dogs—and then, in seconds, there was nothing but' the fence and a man with a _dull-finished box in his arms. Wavery streamers of mist floated up from the empty fence, quickly dissipating in the clear, still, desert air. Suddenly, the fence sagged and crumpled in On one side.

The man stood a moment inspecting the ruin he had evidently wrought, then turned with the instrument slung to his breast, and strode away through the trees. An orderly huddle of brownish mission adobes was partly visible in the distance; a deep-well watered rancho hidden away in this remote tributary of Arizona's Paradise Valley.

"It's Eli Martin's placel!" Vingie's voice quivered a little, her piquant face pale and strained.

Ron Sherman's square, cleft chin jutted stubbornly as his practical business-brain strove to reject the evidence his eyes had presented. His lazy, blue eyes were no longer lazy as he scanned the hostile rocks above him, the poison green of palo verdes in the ravine below. He had come out here to look for two missing men—one of them Vingie's father. He hadn't believed there was anything really wrong. Now he half wished he had brought a cordon of G-men.

With a mumbled imprecation he released the brakes, and once more they were rolling on impetuously along the stony road that horseshoed down and down toward watered fields—green plots of pasture, fragrant citrus, that now seemed the smiling mask of a stirring menace.

Ron Sherman wasn't a scientist, not even the blood relative of one as was his blonde and ultra-modern young wife. Ron was a very practical executive in charge of the thriving Sherman Aircraft Works. One of his fastest ships had brought him and Vingie from distant Ohio to the landing field at Phoenix, heart of the Southwest. When Vingie's father and his old partner, Adam Holt, had gone west to confer with an obscure inventor concerning an alleged sensational discovery, he'd thought little of it. Just another false alarm that would turn out impractical, he'd concluded. Now he swallowed an unpleasant lump that tightened his generous neck-band. Dogs that turned to smoke! A perfectly good fence collapsing in thin air!

"If this was California, I'd say it was a. movie stunt," he muttered as they leveled off at last at the foot of the cliff-side trail.

The ranch buildings were not visible at the lower elevation. Irrigation ditches, fringed with tall, rank grass, bordered the reddish 'brown gravel oi the road they turned into. Fig trees shed a dense, depressive shade in the hot stillness, oddly death-like as they saw no sign of fleshly life.

Then they saw it. Vingie gasped as Ron trod on the brake. Through the rich green of a. young citrus grove on the left stretched a triangular space of the most utter desolation they had ever seen. The scythe of an incredible demolition had cut through the field in a widening span, as if a branding iron of immense proportions had been impressed there by a Titan hand.

Ron started to speak, to stammer something about a plant disease, when they heard a rustling in the trees at the edge of the desolated strip. Vingie's shriek rang out as Ron instinctively recoiled from the ghastly apparition that tottered into view from the outer fringe of living trees. A man, an awful travesty of a man, so old that it seemed he must fall to pieces with every flexing of his skeletal joints. A bald, shriveled skull bulked abnormally large on thin, bent shoulders. Rags of garments flapped from the scarecrow form. In one withered hand he held a crooked staff of trimmed mesquite wood.

"Howdy, old timer," Ron called out, shakily. "Is—is this the right road to the Martin ranch?"

A wavery grin bared toothless gums in a face that might have belonged to an Egyptian mummy. Sound from the shriveled throat seemed a long while coming. Finally, the quavery, feeble voice reached them as if from another world:

"There's no-o tomorrow—n-o-o tomorrow!"

A haunting sadness racked the broken voice. It was as if the burden of a world's mourning had walled out at them from the roadside. One skinny arm wavered up as they stared. The patriarch of the blasted grove was beckoning palsiedly.

"Let's see what he wants," Ron cleared a phlegm from his throat. "Come along, but stay close to me."

Ron kept a suspicious eye on the old roan as they got out of the car. The animated skeleton was craning its neck jerkily, ogling down the road in the direction the car was headed. The transparent guile of an idiot was evinced in every twitch and flicker of the corpse-like features. The thing that once had been a. man was mortally afraid of something—more afraid of it than he was of strangers.

Slowly the old man led them deeper into the desolated strip that scarred the grove. Presently he tottered to a stop at an odd-shaped mound so vaguely defined that it hadn't been noticeable from the road. There could be no doubt of it after a second, horrified look; that mound had the bloated outlines of a human figure!

They could say nothing as they stared down at the fearfully unnatural remains. The incarnate Father Time had hobbled away and was beckoning them to another human-shaped mound.

"Stay back! " Ron's voice was hoarse as he set himself for the worst.

"I'm not afraid," Vingie vowed with half a sob. "If it's dad, I want to know."

Then they were looking down together at what lay in the shadow of the living citrus trees. A withered mummy of a man! A few faded tatters of clothes still clung to the dried husk of a body. Workman's clothes. Ron could see a little light as he' stared down fascinatedly. This and the other mound were all that was left of laborers caught in the inexplicable catastrophe that had slashed a trail of annihilation through the grove. Evidently, this one had escaped the full effects of the awful blight.

Ron swung on their guide suddenly. For 2. momen...

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