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THE BURNING ARROW
The road looked as if it had been baked out of rubbly dough in a giant's oven, removed in all its snaky length, unwound and laid in coils around the flank of the mountain, and then cheerfully stamped upon. Its crust, broiled by the sun, had risen quite as if one of its ingredients were yeast; it erupted like brown cornbread for fifty yards at a stretch and then, for no sane reason, sucked itself in to form tire-killing ruts for fifty more. To make life exciting for the unfortunate motorist who chanced upon that unhappy highway it had been so molded as to slue and curve and dip and wind and swoop and climb and broaden and narrow in a manner truly wonderful to behold. And it raised swarms of dust, each grain a locust ferociously bent upon biting into such damp crawling human flesh as it happened to alight upon.
Mr. Ellery Queen, totally unrecognizable by virtue of specked sunglasses over his aching eyes, linen cap pulled low, the wrinkles of his linen jacket filled with the grit of three counties, his skin where it showed a great raw wet irritation, humped his shoulders over the wheel of the battered Duesenberg, wrestling with it with a sort of desperate determination. He had cursed every curve in the alleged road from Tuckesas forty miles down the Valley, where it officially began, to the present point; and he had quite run out of words.
"Your own damn fault," said his father peevishly. "Cripes, you'd think it would be cool in the mountains! I feel as if somebody's scraped me all over with sandpaper."
The Inspector, gray little Arab swathed to his eyes against the dust in a gray silk scarf, had been nursing a grudge which, like the road itself, bucked skyward and erupted at every fifty yards. He twisted, groaning, in his seat beside Ellery and peered sourly over the pile of luggage strapped behind at the lumpy stretch of paving in their wake. Then he slumped back.
"Told you to stick to the Valley pike, didn't I?" He brandished his forefinger at the rush of hot sticky air.
"'El,' I said, 'take my word for it—in these blasted mountains you never know what kind of squirty road you run into,' I said. But no; you had to go and start explorin' with night coming on, like—like some damn Columbus!" The Inspector paused to grumble at the deepening sky. "Stubborn. Just like your mother—rest her soul!" he added hastily, for he was after all a God-fearing old gentleman. "Well, I hope you're satisfied."
Ellery sighed and stole a glance from the zigzag expanse before him to the sky. The whole arc of heaven was purpling very softly and swiftly—a sight to rouse the poet in any man, he thought, except a tired, hot, and hungry one with a querulous sire at his side who not only grumbled but grumbled with unanswerable logic. The road along the foothills bordering the Valley had looked inviting; there was something cool—by anticipation only, he thought sadly—in a vista of green trees.
The Duesenberg bucked on in the gathering gloom.
"And not only that," continued Inspector Queen, cocking an irritated eye upon the road ahead above a fold of the dusty scarf, "but it's one hell of a way to top off a vacation. Trouble, just trouble! Gets me all hot and—and bothered. Damn it all, El, I worry about these things. They spoil my appetite!"
"Not mine," said Ellery with another sigh. "I could eat a Goodyear-tire steak with French-fried gaskets and gasoline sauce right now, I'm so famished. Where the devil are we anyway?"
"Tepees. Somewhere in the United States. That's all I know."
"Lovely. Tepees. There's poetic justice for you! Makes me think of venison broiling over a woodfire.... Whoa, Duesey! That was a daisy, wasn't it?" The Inspector, who at the peak of the bump had almost had his head torn off, glared; it was quite evident that to his way of thinking "daisy" was scarcely the appropriate word. "Now, now, dad. Don't mind a little thing like that. One of the normal hazards of motoring. What you miss is the Montreal Scotch, you renegade Irishman! ... Now look at that, will you?"
They had reached a rise in the road around one of the myriad unexpected bends; and for sheer wonder Ellery stopped the car. Hundreds of feet below and to the left lay Tomahawk Valley, already cloaked in the purple mantle which had dropped so swiftly from the green battlements jutting against the sky. The mantle billowed as if something huge and warm and softly animal stirred beneath it. A faint gray tapeworm of road slithered along far down, already half-smothered by the purple mantle. There were no lights, no signs of human beings or habitations. The whole sky overhead was suffused now, and the last cantaloupe sliver of sun was sinking behind the distant range across the Valley. The edge of the road was ten feet away; there it dipped sharply and cascaded in green sheets toward the Valley floor.
Ellery turned and looked up. Arrow Mountain swelled above them, a dark emerald tapestry closely woven out of pine and scrub oak and matted underbrush. The bristly fabric of foliage towered, it seemed, for miles above their heads.
He started the Duesenberg again. "Almost worth the torture," he chuckled. "Feel better already. Come out of it, Inspector! This is the real thing—Nature in the raw."
"Too damn raw to suit me."
The night suddenly overpowered them and Ellery switched his headlights on. They bounced along in silence. Both stared ahead, Ellery dreamily and the old gentleman with irritation. A peculiar haze had begun to dance in the shafts of light stabbing the road before them; it drifted and curled and eddied like lazy fog.
"Seems to me we ought to be getting there," growled the Inspector, blinking in the darkness. "Road's going down now, isn't it? Or is it my imagination?"
"It's been dipping for some time," murmured Ellery. "Getting warmer, isn't it? How far did that hulking countryman with the lisp—that garageman in Tuckesas—say it was to Osquewa?"
"Fifty miles. Tuckesas! Osquewa! Gripes, this country's enough to make a man throw up."
"No romance," grinned Ellery. "Don't you recognize the beauty of old Indian etymology? At that, it's ironic. Our compatriots visiting abroad complain bitterly about the 'foreign' names—Lwow, Prague (now why Pra-ha, in the name of merciful heaven?), Brescia, Valdepeñaz, and even good old British Harwich and Leicestershire. Yet those are words of one syllable—"
"Hmm," said the Inspector in an odd tone; he blinked again.
"—compared with our own native Arkansas and Winnebago and Schoharie and Otsego and Sioux City and Susquehanna and goodness knows what else. Talk about heritage! Yes, sir, painted redskins roamed them thar hills across the Valley and this here mounting falling on our heads. Redskins in moccasins and tanned deerskin, braided hair and turkey feathers. The smoke of their signal fires—"
"Hmm," said the Inspector again, suddenly bolting upright. "Looks damned near as if they were still setting 'em!"
"Smoke, smoke, you, son! See it?" The Inspector rose, pointing ahead. "There!" he cried. "Right in front of us!"
"Nonsense," said Ellery in a sharp voice; "What would smoke be doing up here, of all places? That's probably some manifestation of evening mist. These hills play peculiar pranks sometimes."
"This one's acting up," said Inspector Queen grimly. The dusty scarf fell into his lap, unheeded. His sharp little eyes were no longer dull and bored. He craned backward and stared for a long time. Ellery frowned, snatching a glimpse into his windshield mirror, and then looked quickly ahead again. The road was definitely dipping toward the Valley now, and the peculiar haze thickened with every downward foot.
"What's the matter, dad?" he said in a small voice. His nostrils quivered. There was an odd and faintly disagreeable pungency in the air.
"I think," said the Inspector, sinking back, "I think, El, you'd better step on it."
"Is it—?" began Ellery feebly, and swallowed hard.
"Looks mighty like it."
"Forest fire. Smell it now?"
Ellery's right foot squeezed the accelerator. The Duesenberg leaped forward. The Inspector, his grumpiness gone, reached over the edge of the car on his side and switched on a powerful sidelamp which swept the slope of the mountain like a broom of light.
Ellery's lips tightened; neither spoke.
Despite their altitude and the mountain chill of evening, a queer heat suffused the air. The swirling mist through which the Duesenberg plowed was yellowish now, and thick as cotton. It was smoke, the smoke of desiccated wood and dusty foliage burning. Its acrid molecules suddenly invaded their nostrils, burned their lungs, made them cough, brought smarting tears to their eyes.
To the left, where the Valley lay, there was nothing to be seen but a dark smother, like the sea at night.
The Inspector stirred. "Better stop, son."
"Yes," muttered Ellery. "I was just thinking that myself."
The Duesenberg halted, panting. Ahead of them the smoke was whipping in furious dark waves. And beyond—not far, a hundred feet or so—little orange teeth began to show, biting into the smoke. Down toward the Valley, too, were more little orange teeth, thousands of them; and tongues, long nicking orange tongues.
"It's directly in our path," said Ellery in the same queer tone. "We'd better turn round and go back."
"Can you turn here?" sighed the Inspector.
It was nervous, delicate work in the boiling darkness. The Duesenberg, an old racing relic Ellery had picked up out of perverted sentiment years before and had had reconditioned for private use, had never seemed so long-legged and cantankerous. He sweated and swore beneath his breath as he swung it back, forward, back, forward—inching his way around by imperceptible degrees while the Inspector's little gray hand clutched the windshield and the ends of his mustache fluttered in the hot wind.
"Better make it snappy, son," said the Inspector quietly. His eyes darted upward to the silent dark slope of Arrow Mountain. "I think—"
"Yes?" panted Ellery, negotiating the last turn.
"I think the fire's climbed up to the road—behind us."
"Lord, no, dad!"
The Duesenberg shuddered as Ellery stared fiercely into the murk. He felt the impulse to laugh. It was all too silly. A firetrap! ... The Inspector sat forward, alert and quiet as a mouse. Then Ellery shouted and brought his heel down, hard, upon the accelerator. They surged forward.
The whole mountainside below them was burning. The mantle was ripped in thousands of places and the little orange teeth and the long orange tongues were greedily nibbling and licking away at the slope, hostile and palpable in their own light. An entire landscape, miles long, seen in miniature from their elevation, had suddenly burst into flames. In that numbing moment as they rushed back along the crazy road they both realized what must have happened. It was late July, and the month had been one of the hottest and driest in years. This was almost virgin timberland—a tangled mat of tree and bush long since sapped by the sun of its water. It was crumbly tinder inviting flame. A camper's carelessly trodden fire, or a forgotten cigaret, even the friction of two dead limbs rubbed against each other by a breeze, might have started it. Then it would slither swiftly along beneath the trees, eating its way along the sole of an entire mountainfoot, and suddenly the slope would burst into flame spontaneously as the fire burned through to the dry upper air....
The Duesenberg slowed down, hesitated, lunged forward, stopped with a screeching of brakes.
"We're hemmed in!" cried Ellery, half rising behind the wheel. "Back and front!" Then, calming suddenly, he sank back and fumbled for a cigaret. His chuckle was ghostly. "It's ridiculous, isn't it? Trial by fire! What sins have you committed?"
"Don't be a fool," said the Inspector harshly. He stood up and looked quickly from right to left. Below the lip of the road flames were gnawing.
"The odd part of it is," muttered Ellery, drawing a lungful of smoke and expelling it without sound, "that I got you into this. It's beginning to look like my last stupidity.... No, it's no use looking, dad. There's no solution except to dash right through the thick of it. This is a narrow road and the fire's already nibbling at the timber and brush beyond." He chuckled again, but his eyes were hot behind his goggles and his face was damp chalk. "We shan't last a hundred yards. Can't see—the road twists and spins.... The chances are, if the fire doesn't get us, that we'll go rocketing off the road."
The Inspector, nostrils flaring, stared without speaking.
"It's so damned melodramatic," said Ellery with an effort, frowning over the Valley. "Not my notion at all of how to pass out. It smacks of—of charlatanry." He coughed and flung his cigaret away with a grimace. "Well, what's the decision? Shall we stay here and fry, or take our chances with the road, or try scrambling up the slope overhead? Quickly—our host is impatient."
The Inspector flung himself down. "Get a grip on yourself. We can always take to the woods up there. Get going!"
"Right, sir," murmured Ellery, his eyes full of a pain that was not caused by the smoke. The Duesenberg stirred. "It's really no use looking, you know," he said, pity suddenly invading his voice. "There's no way out. This is a straight road—no side roads at all.... Dad! Don't get up again. Wrap your handkerchief around your mouth and nose!"
"I tell you to get going!" shouted the old man with exasperation. His eyes were red and watery; they glared like damped coals.
The Duesenberg staggered drunkenly ahead. The combined brilliance of the three lamps served only to bring out more starkly the yellow-white snakes of smoke wrapping their coils about the car. Ellery drove more by instinct than sense. He was trying desperately, beneath a rigid exterior, to recall the exact vagaries of the insane road ahead. There had been a curve.... They were coughing constantly now; Ellery's eyes, protected by the goggles as they were, nevertheless began to stream. A new odor came to their tortured nostrils, the smell of scorched rubber. The tires....
Cinders speckled their clothes, dropping softly.
From somewhere far below and far away, even above the snapping and crackling about them, came the faint persistent scream of a country fire siren. A warning, thought Ellery grimly, from Osquewa. They had seen the fire and were gathering the clans. Soon there would be hordes of little human ants with buckets and flails and handmade besoms swarming into the burning woods. These people were accustomed to fighting fires. No doubt they would master this one, or it would master itself, or providentially rain would come and smother it. But one thing seemed certain, thought Ellery as he strained into the smoke and coughed in hacking spasms: two gentlemen named Queen were destined to meet their fate on a blazing road along a lonely mountain miles from Centre Street and upper Broadway, and there would be no one to watch their exit from a world which had suddenly become impossibly sweet and precious....
"There!" shrieked the Inspector, jumping up. "There—El! I knew it, I knew it!" and he danced up and down in his seat, pointing to the left, his voice a wild blur of tears relief, and satisfaction. "I thought I remembered one side road. Stop the car!"
With a wildly beating heart Ellery jammed on his brakes. Through a rift in the smoke appeared a black cavernous gap. It was apparently a road leading up through the steep and almost impassable tangle of forest which matted the chest of Arrow Mountain like a giant's hair.
Ellery wrestled powerfully with the wheel. The Duesenberg darted back, screamed, surged forward with a roar. In second gear it bit into a hard-packed dirt road set at an alarming angle to the main highway. The motor whined and keened and sang—and the car clawed its way up. It gathered speed, creeping up. It hurtled on, flashing up. Now the road began to wind; a curve, a swift wind inexpressibly sweet, scented with pine needles, a delicious chill in the air....
Incredibly, within twenty seconds, they had left fire, smoke, their fate and their death behind.
It was utterly black now—the sky, the trees, the road. The air was like liquor; it bathed their tortured lungs and throats with coolness that was half warmth, and they both became silently intoxicated upon it. They gulped it down, sniffing mightily until they felt their lungs must burst. Then they both began to laugh.
"Oh, God," gasped Ellery, stopping the car. "It's all—all too fantastic!"
The Inspector giggled: "Just like that! Whew." He took out his handkerchief, trembling, and passed it over his mouth.
They both removed their hats and exulted in the cold feel of the wind. Once they looked at each other, trying to pierce the darkness. Both fell silent soon, the mood passing; and finally Ellery released his handbrake and set the Duesenberg in motion.
If the road below had been difficult, this ahead was impossible. It was little more than a cowpath, rocky and overgrown. But neither man could find it in his heart to curse it. It was a boon sent from heaven. It kept winding and climbing, and they wound and climbed with it. Of human beings not a trace. The headlights groped ahead of them like the antennae of an insect. The air grew steadily sharper, and the sweet sharp arboreal smell was like wine. Winged things hummed and dashed themselves against the lights.
Excerpted from The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1961 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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