CHAPTER 15: Doc's Aides Take Over!

"Holy cow!  That's right!" thundered Renny.  "Remember the look he gave Doc the other night?  Pure DEATH!  He hated Doc bustin' up what he thought he had goin' with the Countess."

"I know the feeling..." smiled Ham.  "I think anyone who thought they had a chance with that lady would have felt...well...at least a twinge of jealousy!  There's something irresistible about her..."

"Yeah..." Monk sighed dreamily.  He had forgotten himself enough to agree with Ham. 

"Indubitably!" murmured Johnny.

"Ummm hmmm..." Even Long Tom's eyes got soft at the mention of the Countess.

Renny looked at his companions.  Every single one of them had fallen for her...so he wasn't alone!  Even that woman-proof paragon, Doc, had succumbed.  Renny eyed the unconscious form of his bronze leader.  Succumbed to love...and nearly died!  Doc had been right!  Women and adventuring just did not mix well; when your mind was on one...it couldn't be on the other!

"Blast it all!"  Renny eyed the ornate paneling of the door to Doc's room.  He desperately needed to punch out a panel to relieve his growing frustrations.  He marched over to the door and took careful aim.

"Don't you DARE!"  The Countess opened the door just as he was about to let fly.

"Oop...uh...YES MA'AM!"  Renny sheepishly lowered his massive fist.

"You'd have broken your hand, Mr. Renwick.  These doors are solid oak -- they are only carved to resemble panels.  However, should I find any of them damaged, I will come looking for you...and I will not be at all pleased!  Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes Ma'am!"  Renny had detected a bit of amusement tempering the admonition.  He quickly decided, however, that no amount of frustration-release was worth incurring the wrath of this woman.

"Is Clark here?...Oh...!"  Her eyes widened as she peered around Renny and saw the rest of the group congregated in the room.

At the sound of her voice, the others had formed a living wall between her and the bed.  Since it was in the shadows, they hoped to prevent her from noticing its contents.  "We're waitin' on him, Countess."  Monk lied glibly.  Actually it wasn't really a lie...they were waiting on Doc...but Monk wouldn't have balked at telling a bigger whopper than that to achieve whatever ends he wished.

"Oh?  Well...the servants said none of you were about this morning.  Should I have some lunch sent up here?  It is rather late in the afternoon, you know."

"That would be most kind of you, Ma'am."  Renny, noting what his colleagues were about, escorted her to the head of the stair.  "Don't you worry..." he said, "Your...doors...are perfectly safe...now!"

She eyed him curiously.  "You're all acting somewhat peculiar.  Is anything wrong?"

"We'll let you know...after we...uh...talk to Doc!"  Renny hoped his smile was reassuring -- rather than the semi-hysterical that he felt at the moment.  He gave a small sigh of relief when she descended the stair.

He rejoined his friends in Doc's room.  "Whew...that was close!" he muttered.  "What we do NOT heed right now is a fainting woman on our hands!"

"Personally," drawled Ham, "I think she could probably handle it.  She's a very capable lady -- not really the type to get hysterical on us."

"I hope you're right," said Johnny.  "With Doc out of commission, we're going to need all the help we can get!  She'll have to learn about this sooner or later."

"Later...I hope..."  Doc's normally powerful voice was but a whisper. 

His aides rushed to his side.  It was evident that he was fighting to maintain his consciousness.  His men knew that an effort like this would only be made if his subconscious need to impart vital information!

"Brothers...there's a cave connection in the northeast wall of the tombs beneath the castle...behind a large marble sarcophagus.  It may yet be open...men trapped in the tunnels...need help..."

"O.K. Doc, we'll get 'em out," rumbled Renny.  "Long Tom, get us some super-firers and..."

"No...there's gas...don't use any type of explosive...or guns...you'll blow up the caverns!   Take...breathing devices...be very...careful..."  Doc lost his tenuous hold on consciousness.

"Terrific!"  Ham snorted.  "If we do what Doc wants us to, we'll be saving lives...but leaving him unprotected!  What do we do now?"

"Johnny knows what to do to keep him safe," Long Tom offered, "...and Monk's too weak to go..."

"I ain't either!" Monk squeaked!  The idea of being left out of some action was anathema to him.

"You are too -- so shut up and sit down!" Long Tom snapped.  "Besides, Monk, if Doc needs more blood you've got to be here!"  It was a weak excuse and they all knew it.  "Anyway...why don't Ham, Renny and I see what we can do about Doc's request.  Johnny and Monk can stay here with Doc."

"I will stay with him also," a soft contralto voice said.

The Countess stood at the doorway, flanked on either side by serving girls bearing trays of food.  She crossed to the bed, took one look at its contents and whirled to face Johnny.

"Professor Littlejohn...what means this?"

"Doc was..." Johnny hesitated only a moment, "...injured rather badly rescuing Renny and Long Tom.  There was a cave-in in some tunnels, and he was buried for several hours.  He lost  a lot of blood and is very weak.  We've given him a transfusion...and he seems to be recovering somewhat, but he needs to be watched over.  Renny and Long Tom say there's been a hefty price put on his head.  There may be other attempts on his life!"

"Attempts on his life?!  Why only him?  Why not all of yo...if you are making things uncomfortable for whoever is out there!?"  The Countess's eyes snapped fire.

"We don't know!"  Long Tom attempted to soothe her agitation.  "We learned enough -- when we were prisoners -- to know that it has something to do with a band of would-be revolutionaries trying to get their hands on a great treasure.  Somehow, Doc, alone, stands in their way so he's the main target at this point.  We don't know who they are or why only Doc stands in their way...or anything about a treasure!"

The Countess nodded.  "The wealth of my land has, for generations, led our greedy neighbors to the east to believe we have vast gold hoards at our disposal.  They are after this...legendary...treasure..."

She crossed to the bed and sat gently upon its edges. She reached down and lifted one of the quiescent bronze hands to her lips.  "For something they cannot even be sure exists -- they would take you from me..." she whispered.  "You, who are my greatest treasure..."

A great silence descended on the room.  Doc's men eyed each other uncomfortably.  They were adventurers -- men use dot rough and tumble action; fast paced and hard-hitting!  This glimpse of the quiet, timeless, pervading love -- that their very life-styles denied them -- shook them to their marrow. 

They moved as quietly as possible to relieve the serving girls of the heavy trays; then fell to eating as only famished men can eat.

After they finished, they headed for the equipment cases -- most of which had been brought to Doc's room.  Color-coded boxes yielded numerous self-contained breathing devices.  There were easily enough for the three men who would venture into the tunnels.  The extras they tucked into packs for the use of anyone they found alive in the gas-filled caverns.  They they dug into the spare-parts box and used bits and pieces to jury-rig several more of the  breathing devices.  By the time they were ready to leave, each carried half a dozen extra devices.

Ham and Johnny conferred as they worked on the assembly of the packs.

"Any particular reason why you didn't tell the Countess about the vampire marks?" Ham whispered.

"She's a logical victim, and I don't want her frightened," Johnny said.  "Besides, I'm not sure she'd believe me any more than Doc did.  I'll keep an eye on her so she's safe...don't worry."

"Hmm...you've got a point there."  Ham smiled as he swung his pack to his back.  "O.K., ol' bones, you take care of the lovers and the Ape...and we shall see what lurks in the bowels of the earth.  If we can find anybody alive in there, maybe we can learn for sure what goes on around here!"

* * * * *

The kitchen was agog with the news that the two serving girls had brought back.  Like most people -- whose lives are rarely touched by excitement -- the members of the staff at the castle were highly interested and excited by the strange things that had been happening ever since the American adventurers had arrived.

They whispered and muttered over the accumulation of strange events -- embellished by the stable-boy's anecdotes of the previous evening.  They were equally intrigued when three of the group came through the kitchens asking directions the the family vaults beneath the castle.

Several of the young men offered to accompany the three, but were told that the mission was fairly dangerous and that the extra breathing devices would be needed for the men they hoped to rescue.

"We will accompany you as far as the fresh air permits -- and stand ready there to assist with whomever you bring back," offered one of the the grooms.

This was agreeable to Renny, Long Tom and Ham, so a sizable group moved off into the tunnels.

They had not seen the two men who listened at the windows of the kitchen.

"So!  The bronze one is gravely wounded!  Perhaps, sir, he will perish of these wounds, eh?"

"I think so!  It is fairly safe to assume, from what we've just heard, that it was he who overcame us and took the documents connecting us with this activity.  It's also evident that in the excitement, his aides have not found the documents.  We must retrieve them at all costs!" snarled the other.  "You must decoy the ones who guard Doc Savage away -- then leave the bronze devil to me!  It will be a pleasure to deal with him -- in my own way!"

A low and very evil laugh escaped from his lips as the two snuck past the kitchen entrances and melted into the shadowed halls of the rambling stone edifice.

TAKE ME TO THE NEXT CHAPTER, PLEASE! 

The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast.  All text and images are  1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.