The Stranger

The entire Spindrift Island family, like any well-knit unit, seemed to sense a crisis. By the time Rick arrived, carrying the stiff little body of Dismal in his arms, the word had spread and the Brants, the scientists, and the Huggins family were gathering at the big house.

Rick was paper-white as he laid Dismal on the kitchen table. Barby was sobbing quietly and Scotty was aving trouble swallowing.

"He's not dead," Rick said shakily. "His heart is beating. We listened, first thing."

Mrs. Brant, a slim, motherly woman, put an arm around Rick's shoulders. "What happened, son?"

Rick shook his head. He couldn't make words come. To think that his experiment, designed to help Dismal, had hurt the pup�he couldn't understand what had happened.

Hartson Brant pushed through the group around the table and bent over the dog. The buzz of conversation slowed and stopped. He put his hand over Dismal's heart, then stooped and put his ear on the shaggy fur.

"Good, strong pulse," he said. "Get a flashlight, Rick."

Rick ran to obey, getting the flashlight his father kept in the library. He hurried back and handed it to the scientist.

Hartson Brant flashed the light in Dismal's fixed, open eyes, then shook his head. He tried to flex the pup's leg, bending it back. The leg was very stiff.

Barby's quiet sobs were the only sound in the room. Hartson Brant straightened up and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"He's alive, all right. But something has paralyzed him. Every muscle has stiffened."

Mrs. Brant asked anxiously, "Is he in pain, Hartson?"

"No, I'm sure he isn't. Julius, what do you think?"

The little scientist frowned. "It's almost like a cataleptic trance, isn't it? Rick, suppose you tell us exactly what happened."

Rick swallowed hard. He felt terrible, but he knew he had to remember everything, so that perhaps the scientists could help Dismal.

"It was the air pistol," he began unsteadily. All eyes in the room were on him. He felt as though they were accusing him, because the pup was a favorite with everyone. "I wanted to make an ultrasonic whistle out of it, to call Dismal. Professor Weiss helped me. He plugged the muzzle, then bored a tiny hole in it. I went down to the field, and Diz�well, he was trying to catch the woodchuck�"

He wished they wouldn't look at him like that. "Anyway, we walked about fifty feet away from him and pointed the pistol over his head and pulled the trigger and�"

Dismal sneezed.

With a yell Rick jumped to the table. Dismal, a little unsteady, was getting to his feet! He shook himself, as though he had just come out of the water, then sneezed again, a loud, resounding sneeze!

Rick reached out and patted him. The pup promptly rolled over to play dead, but he hadn't realize he was on a table. Rick caught him as he was clawing at the smooth top, trying to keep from slipping to the floor.

"Nothing wrong with him," Scotty said with evident relief.

Hartson Brant watched the pup as Rick set him on his feet. The scientist was obviously puzzled. "Very strange," he murmured.

Barby glared at Rick, then hurried to where Dismal's food was kept. In a moment the shaggy pup was eating as though nothing had happened. The Spindrift group watched him, the scientists conversing in low tones. Rick caught fragments of what they were saying.

"Induced paralysis�auditory impact�approximate vibration�temporary catalepsis�ultrasonic�"

Dismal finished wolfing his food, took a few quick laps of water, then hurried out the kitchen door. In a moment they saw him trotting down the path that led toward the farm.

"Gone back to his woodchuck," Scotty said in wonderment. "What ever happened to him?"

"That is what we are going to determine," Hartson Brant said. "Rick, where is the pistol?"

For a moment Rick couldn't remember. "I must have dropped it down at the garden," he said. He wouldn't forget that awful moment when Diz had dropped as though a real bullet had been fired from the pistol. He never wanted to see the thing again!

"Will you get it for us, son?"

"I'll go," Scotty offered.

Rick nodded his thanks. It would take him a little while to recover from the shock of what had happened. Golly, if he had really hurt Dismal! The pup was an important member of the family.

"Let's go into the library," Hartson Brant said. He motioned to Rick, Weiss, Zircon, and Gordon, then let the way.

The library, a huge room that served Hartson Brant as an office, was filled with books written in several languages, most of them on scientific subjects. On one wall were framed degrees and certificates stating that Hartson William Brant was an engineer, a doctor of science in physics, a member of numerous scientific societies, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Atomic Scientists.

In the center of the room was a massive, oaken desk, surrounded by chairs, most of which were comfortable and upholstered in leather.

The group sat down, and Hartson Brant said, "All right, Rick. Let's have the story from the very beginning. Don't leave out any details."

Rick didn't. Now that his frights was over, he was as anxious as any of them to find out what had happened. He described the day's events from the moment Barby brought up the subject until they had seen Dismal with their own eyes, stiff and unresponding on the kitchen table.

When he had finished, he watched his father's face anxiously. Hartson Brant looked at Professor Gordon and his eyebrows lifted in an unspoken question.

Gordon nodded. "It could very well be, Hartson."

Julius Weiss spoke up. "At least it's worth an intensive investigation."

"Yes," Zircon boomed. "Do you all realize that would explain why the clerk's hearing aid exploded?"

They were talking gibberish! They weren't talking about Dismal at all!

Scotty, the air pistol in his hand, knocked at the door.

"Come in," Hartson Brant said. He took the pistol from Scotty, then smiled at Rick. "That's all, son. Why don't you and Scotty go keep an eye on Dismal?"

At any other time, Rick might have asked questions, but now he permitted himself to be ushered into the hall without the slightest protest. He was too confused by all that had happened, by the accident to Dismal, by the strange conversation he had just heard, by being barred from the lab.

"What's going on?" Scotty asked.

"I don't know," he said. "Honest, I haven't the glimmer of an ideal. Is Dismal okay?"

Scotty grinned. "By the time I got down there, he was on his stomach trying to sneak up on the woodchuck again. He's all right, Rick. Don't worry about him any more."

"That's easy to say." Rick shuddered. "For a while I thought I had�"

"Skip it," Scotty said roughly. "I thought so, too. Come on, let's go on down and keep an eye on him."

"That was an excuse," Rick said. "Dad just wanted to get us out of the library. I'd rather go get a glass of milk. My throat feel like the tail end of a sandstorm."

In the kitchen, they found Mrs. Brant just pouring three tall, cold glasses of milk while Barby was putting fresh doughnuts on a plate.

"I thought you might be thirsty," Mrs. Brant said as the boys entered.

Scotty grinned as Rick gave his mother a hug. "Talk about woman's intuition," he said. "The Brant kitchen is full of it."

Barby handed Rick the doughnut platter. "I've decided," she said firmly. "From now on, I'm going to get Dismal myself when it's time for him to eat."

"You and us," Scotty said past a mouthful. "If the boy genius tries any more tricks like that, I"ll bean him personally."

"You and how many other Marines?" Rick demanded. "You talk to me like that and I won't invent any more armchairs for you to sleep in."

"Armchair or cement floor, it's all the same to me," Scotty said airily. "I'm the rugged type. I can sleep anywhere."

Rick finished his glass of milk, then walked out to the big porch that faced the sea. The excitement had made him restless. He wondered again what the scientists were discussing, what was so secret that even he and Scotty couldn't be let in on it. But most of all, he wondered what had happened to Dismal.

Scotty came out to the porch and gauged his mood accurately. "No use hanging around and making bum guesses about what's going on. What say we take a ride?"

"Boat or plane?"

"Plane. I need a little flying time. I'm getting rusty."

Scotty had got his flying license a short while before, and like Rick, had fallen in love with flying.

"Okay," Rick agreed. "We can take a swing over Whiteside and see what the town looks like. Do you realize you haven't been off the island more than half a dozen times since we got back from Kwangara?"

"After that particular island," Scotty said fervently, "I don't care if we ever leave Spindrift again." He led the way from the porch to where the Cub waited on the grassy landing strip. "Incidentally, I wonder how Chahda is making out?"

Chahda, the little Hindu boy who had been their companion on the trip to Tibet and later to the island of Kwangara, had remained in Hawaii at the invitation of Dr. Warren of the Pacific Ethnographic Institute. They corresponded, but irregularly, after the fashion of boys their age. Besides, Chahda was very busy studying. He had a positive passion for learning, probably because his schooling in India had been so haphazard. His only textbook, until his informal adoption by the Brants, had been an ancient copy of The World Almanac.

"He'll do all right wherever he is," Rick said. "His last letter said he had made a lot of friends, but he missed us." He motioned to the plane. "Get in. I'll crank the prop for you."

As Scotty climbed into the little yellow Cub, Rick untied the ropes that protected it against sudden winds, then pulled the prop through to prime it.

"Switch on," Scotty called.

Rick snapped the prop down and the engine caught at once. He went around and climbed into the passenger's seat and fastened his belt as Scotty warmed the engine.

"All set?"

"Any time."

Scotty pushed the throttle forward and the plane moved into take-off position. Then, with a final quick testing of the controls, Scotty took off.

Rick looked down as Spindrift fell away under them. As Scotty banked and headed toward the New Jersey coast, he could see the island in its entirety. It was shaped, as Scotty sometimes said, "like a T-bone steak without the bone." At the back side of the island were tidal flats connecting it to the mainland. The flats were under water when the tide was in, so that communication with the mainland had to be by boat, or by Rick's Cub.

"Let's take a look at Whiteside," he suggested. "Just fly over so we can see what's up."

Scotty obligingly turned toward the town, a small community where the Brants did most of their shopping and where the younger members of the Spindrift family went to school. In a few moments Rick saw the outline of the airport, a single strip with a small hanger run by his friend Gus who made a living doing repairs and teaching flying to the members of Whiteside High School's flying club.

On the edge of Whiteside was the boat dock where the Spindrift Island boats tied up. Rick looked down at it idly, then did a double-take.

"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Let's go down and take a look at that!"

Scotty had been gazing off toward the New Jersey flatlands. "At what?"

"The dock! I think that cabin cruiser is there."

Scotty flipped the plane on its side and banked around. "By golly, I think you're right!" He straightened out and let the plane slip down, losing altitude rapidly.

"It is," Rick said. "Do you suppose it stays there all the time?"

"I doubt it." Scotty remarked. "It must be the business at the island that's keeping it around. Sure it's the same one?"

"I'm sure," Rick nodded. "Look, it's just getting under way, too! Shall we follow it?"

"Okay. You don't think it's going to Spindrift, do you?"

"It was there earlier. They wouldn't be going back so soon. Let's keep their trail and see where they do go."

Scotty kept the Cub in a lazy circle as the white cabin cruiser left the dock and started south along the coast. Rick watched it, wondering. There wasn't anything to the south until Spindrift. But maybe they were going right on by, heading for a point on the coast farther down. He began to feel guilty about trailing the boat when his father obviously wanted him to know nothing about it. He was even on the point of calling the whole thing off when he realized the boat was on a course that could only take it to Spindrift. If it had been continuing on past the island, the course would have lain more to sea.

"No luck," Scotty said. "It's heading for home. Well, what now?"

Rick shrugged. "Got any ideas?"

"Yes," Scotty said wryly. "Let's put a microphone in the library. It looks like that's the only way we'll find out anything."

He put the plane in a shallow dive, pointing it toward the back of the island. Rick sat still and said nothing as the sea came up. About thirty feet over the water, Scotty leveled off, holding the plane on a course that would take them behind the farmhouse.

"Watch for Dismal," he said.

Rick dropped the side window so he could lean out a little as the edge of the island loomed in front of them. Scotty climbed a few feet, just enough to clear the trees, then they flashed over the garden. Rick got a glimpse of the pup, a dark blot of fur against the green grass. He couldn't see the woodchuck, but it was a relief to know that Diz was well enough to stay on the job. Then the garden was past and they were over the woods. He looked out to the east, toward Pirate's Field, the clearing on the south side of the island. The moon-rocket launcher had been there one, but now it was gone�dismantled and turned over to the Army for further rocket experiment at White Sands Proving Ground. Only a patch of barren soil, fused sand from the terrible heat of the launching remained to show where the first rocket to the moon had rested.

Scotty flew south along the coast for a short distance, then turned back to Spindrift. Rick smiled to himself. Scotty, in spite of his more casual attitude toward the mysterious visitors to the island, was burning with curiosity. He wanted to be around, just in case any information turned up.

Approaching the landing strip from the south, Scotty let down gradually, then cut the throttle just before they reached the lab. The plane settled into a glide, dropping down over the radar antenna on the lab rood, and rolled to a smooth landing on the strip.

The strange cruiser was already tied up at the pier. Rick looked at it thoughtfully before they went into the house through the kitchen. The boat's captain, if he could be called such, was leaning against the cabin, patiently waiting. The men must be inside with Hartson Brant.

Rick's mother greeted him. "Where have you been? Dad wants to see you in the library!"

Rick and Scotty stared at each other for a moment, then Rick dashed for the library and knocked at the door.

"Come in," Hartson Brant called.

Rick opened the door and went in. His father was seated at the desk. The room's only other occupant was the younger of the two strangers. He had the air pistol and he was idly rubbing the barrel while he looked at Rick.

The boy returned the glance with interest. The stranger was young, not more than twenty-five, and there was a look of hardness about him, like that of a trained athlete. His hair was brown, but of a shade lighter than Rick"s. His blue eyes had a penetrating quality that Rick found uncomfortable. He felt as though in the moment it took him to walk to the desk the stranger had analyzed his opinions, his likes and dislikes, his most secret thoughts. He wouldn't have been at all surprised to have the man say casually, "You were the one who wired Barby's chair so that every time she tried to sit down a siren went off."

"Sit down, Rick," Hartson Brant said.

He obeyed eagerly, and his pulse speeded. Could it be that the moment had come when he would actually learn something of the Spindrift Island mystery?