CHAPTER 9: Danger on Two Fronts

"I don't like it!" a guttural voice muttered.  "Why must we cease our activities for the time being?  The local people were just beginning to listen to me!"

"Ha!" snorted another, "The local people were just about to string you up, you mean!  They are no fools!  Why should they listen to our revolutionary pleas when they are well content with her ladyship's yoke?  They would hang or shoot the lot of us if they could catch us!"

"They will never find us in these caverns!" piped up another.  "They do not even suspect their existence!"

"That bothers me also.  Why do they not know of these caverns?  This is their land!"  The first speaker shivered and glanced uneasily at the dozen or so men huddled about the small campfire.

"I can tell you the answers to your questions."  A quiet, competent voice came from the mouth of the cave.

"Ho!  Svorza!  Welcome back!  How was your trip to America?"

"Bad...we lost many men, and a very demon himself is now on our trail!  I tell you, oh my comrades, if this tiny fiefdom were not the stepping stone to our conquest of Europe, I think I would abandon our efforts here right now!"

"Tell us...what has happened?" a babble of voices threw questions at him.

He gave them a brief outline of what had happened in New York.  "The demon we sought to destroy is here in Mondania!" he muttered blackly.  "When our leader, the Dragon, learned of his arrival, you were immediately told to cease activities till we could assess the extent of the threat he poses.  He, unlike the peasants, has been given the freedom of the mountains.  he and his five men will soon find us here.  By stopping our activities for the present, we have given him fewer clues with which to work."

"What do you mean, 'he has been given the freedom of the mountains'?" interjected a brigand.

"Ahh...of course...you do not know what I have recently learned.  I will tell you."

The men gathered more closely about the fire.

"The Mosneni, the free peasants, have never discovered the caverns we inhabit simply because they are not allowed to wander through these mountains.  There is a centuries-old prohibition that encompasses these private lands of the Contessa's domain.  Criminals are punished by sending them into these hills at night.  They are never heard of or seen again!  The peasants shun these places as they would the very Gates of Hades!  They say that for untold centuries there had been a curse on these hills.  Upright citizens will not venture here!  So...you see...it is the perfect place for us to remain undetected!"

There was a nervous laugh or two around the fire.  A quavering voice finally spoke up.  "Svorza, are we safe here?  We have once again begun to lost men.  They just disappear!"

"Pah!  Deserters!" Svorza exploded.  "Are you children to be frightened by tales of ghouls and ghosts?  Can you not see that this is how the Countess keeps these lands inviolate for herself?"  He sensed that his information had raised superstitious specters in his men's minds.  He knew he must divert their attention.  "They will not share the wealth and power we shall have when the Dragon finds the Contessa's treasure hoard and we use it to foment revolution in other parts of Europe.  I tell you, my brothers, that with this treasure we shall sweep all of Europe under our heels!  There will be gold and women and power for all of us then!"

His men's eyes gleamed with greed and dreams of power.  He had them all with him now!

"I have just conferred with the Dragon.  His plans to infiltrate the Contessa's councils have been stymied by the bronze demon from across the sea!  Since we have failed to rouse the rabble against her -- and since we cannot move openly for fear of armed reprisal from the rest of Moldania -- our only hope to gain the treasure is for our leader to marry the Countess and legally secure access to her funds!  The bronze one has captured her heart...so, he must die!  All efforts are to be directed to this goal!"

"There are strange men in the woods.  We have watched them, but we have not allowed them to observe us," grated a voice from the pack of human wolves.  "Shall they be slain also?"

"For the time being, no!" smirked their captain.  "These are the five aides of the bronze man...and we can use them to better advantage.  Capture them and we can use them to lure the bronze devil to his death!  He values these men of his very much, if my information on him is correct.  He has been known to put himself in grave danger to rescue them!  The Dragon has said he will pay one thousand pieces of pure gold to the man who brings him the head of the bronze devil, Doc Savage!"

Greed lit the eyes of the men around him.  This was a small fortune!  They fell to plotting ways of entrapping Doc Savage!

* * * * * 

Johnny looked up from the musty, ancient volume that reposed on his lap.  He had spent the better part of the afternoon searching this and a score of other tomes.   They were arranged around him on chairs, tables and even the floor.

His marvelous archaeologist's mind had categorized fact, legend, rumor and hypothesis -- and still, somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew there was a crucial point or two that he should know...or remember...that was eluding him.

He rubbed his eyes and signed.  Maybe Doc and the guys were right!  Maybe he was being creepy -- or silly -- or both!

"NO!" nagged his subconscious, "There's something...something..."

He returned to his perusal of the manuscript in his lap.  It was an ancient volume, bound in a smooth, silky leather.  He ran his hands across the bindings.  Dark golden hinges and gem-studded clasps gave richness to the pale leather.  His fingers tingled as he touched the supple covers...as if the book had a life -- a sentience -- of its own.  He had found this last book in hidden, ill-lighted nook.

He turned an illuminated page and proceeded to read.  Halfway through the first paragraph, he realized that this was one of the pieces he had been searching for!  He read avidly with dread growing in his mind.  By the end of the chapter, he was trembling.  He feared greatly -- but not for himself!

He rose, waded through the books piled about him and took the ancient tome to his room -- secreting it there for later reference.

"Got to talk to Doc!" he muttered.  Then he realized he hadn't seen anybody since lunch.  Doc could be anywhere in or around the castle!  It was imperative that he find Doc!  Johnny ran down the stair and collided with Ham at the bottom.

"Whoa, old bones!" laughed Ham, as he picked himself off the floor and proceeded to brush himself off.  Ham never ceased to be overly-particular about his appearance.  "You look like you've just seen a ghost!"

"I hope I don't see one!" moaned Johnny.  "Do you know where Doc is?  I've got to confer with him immediately!"

"Well...since you're using fairly small words -- for a change -- it must be important."  Ham sobered as he noticed Johnny's agitation.  "Monk and I sent him back to bed after lunch.  He really looked beat, and...Johnny?"

The gaunt geologist had turned and was racing for Doc's room.  Ham followed at a run.  Johnny knocked on Doc's door as Ham puffed up behind him.

Silence.

Johnny opened the door and walked in.  Across the room in the great canopied bed lay his leader.

The two men crossed the room, unease growing in their hearts.  Doc was usually a very light sleeper.  To the habit of being able to come instantly awake at any moment, he had owed his life many times over!  He should have been awakened by the knock -- and under no circumstances should Johnny and Ham have been able to walk up to the very bed without at least one golden eye ascertaining that it was indeed friends that approached!  This sleep was strangely deep and unnatural!

Doc's breathing was hollow, ragged, almost forced.  He writhed, as if in the throes of a terrible dream!

Johnny reached out a cool hand and laid it on his bronze leader's forehead.  Doc was burning up!  At Johnny's touch, he quieted...and before Johnny could remove his hand, he felt Doc's temperature plummet to normal levels.  Still, Doc did not awaken!

Ham grabbed Johnny's shoulder.   "What's wrong with him?!  What's going on?"  

Johnny unbuttoned Doc's shirt and examined his still-unconscious leader.  "Look!" he whispered.

Ham looked where Johnny indicated.  His breath was an indrawn hiss of comprehension!

"C'mon!  We're going to need help...and I hop I know where we can find it!"  Johnny was out of the room and down the stairs at a dead run.  Ham was hot on his heels!

They charged through the front doors and piled into the vehicle waiting in the courtyard.  With a roar, the car rocketed from the castle compound, heading towards the town some miles distant.

* * * * * 

Long Tom surveyed the hills before him and Renny.  "You know, we could ride our backsides raw trying to pin down the clowns we're after," he said.

"Yeah," agreed Renny, his voice rumbling like the thunder over the distant mountains.  "We've probably been within spittin' distance of 'em...and never known it.  Maybe we should go back and get Doc.  With his senses he'd surely pick up things we've missed."

"You've got a point there.  Let me try one other thing first." Long Tom reached into one of this saddlebags and brought out several small, black boxes.  Balancing himself expertly on the saddle, he used both hands to unfold the boxes and fit them together to form a complicated piece of apparatus.  It was a compact wave-directional finder.  he ran connecting wires to a battery stored in the second saddlebag.

"This thing draws an awful lot of juice, but if these guys are using any type of radio, we can get a fix on it!"  He flipped a switch and a whine emanated from the box.  Turning a receiver on top of the box gave him the direction of the strongest output.

Renny, a lap-board laid across his thighs, marked a straight line indicating the direction of the sending on the local contour map.  It headed into the heart of the lands they had explored the day before.

"Got it?" Lon Tom looked over Renny's shoulder.  "Good!  Now, we're going to go over to that ridge over there and take another bearing."  He flipped off the current to the box he held in his arms and wheeled his mount towards the adjoining ridge.

"Let's hope they're still sending when we get there," rumbled Renny, as he followed Long Tom down the side of the hill.

On the summit of the second ridge, Long Tom took another bearing.  The whine of the receiver indicated that the radio signal was still being broadcast.

"Bingo!" Renny chortled.  "Why didn't you think of this yesterday?"  He beamed as the second line he drew intersected the first.

"As a matter of fact," smirked the unhealthy-looking electrical wizard, "I did!  But I needed a little time last night to convert this thing to a horse-based portable.  Most of our equipment is made to be plugged into higher energy outputs than we can take along on horseback."  he dismantled the device and re-stowed it in the saddle-packet.  Then he leaned over and studied the map.  "O.K., let's see what we've got...here!"  He tapped the point of the intersecting lines.

Some time later, they approached the ridge from whence the radio signal had been beamed.

"Big ridge," muttered Long Tom.

"Yeah...but maybe we'd better leave the horses tied here," said Renny.  "They do make an awful lot of noise, and in the brush we'd probably do better afoot."

The intersecting lines were halfway up the hillside in an area that appeared to be covered with some sort of scrub-oak.  It was wicked stuff.  Stunted trees low to the ground provided a good cover for any natural caves that opened on the hillside.

"Right!"  Long Tom stuffed the map into a saddlebag and was preparing to swing off his mount when a bullet knocked him from the saddle.  Blood sprayed the horse's neck and tack.  It reared, terrified, and bolted for home...the smell of blood goading it on.

Renny dived for cover, whipping out his super-firer.  "Long Tom!" he bellowed, "You O.K.?"  He had seen the blood, which meant that Long Tom had been hit in an area not protected by the steel-mesh bullet-proof undergarments all of Doc's men wore.

There was no answer.  Renny tried to move silently towards where he had seen Long Tom fall.  He was immediately pinned down by a barrage of gunfire.

He swept the area of its origin with a spray of mercy bullets and was rewarded with the knowledge of several hits as men fell, sleeping, out of the bushes.  The bullfiddle roar of his pistol sent his horse careening away towards its home.

Silence reigned as the galloping hoofbeats receded.

Renny picked up a rock and skittered it into a bush not far from him.  A single sniper spewed lead at the bush.  Renny picked him off with one well-placed shot.

He eased out of his jacket and draped it over a large branch.  Pushing the jacket into view from under his concealing bush, he waited for it to draw fire from his ambushers.

Nothing happened.  Had he gotten them all?  He crawled from beneath the bush and edged towards where Long Tom had fallen.

His first glimpse of his buddy brought a gasp of horror from Renny.  Blood covered the side of  Long Tom's head, and he lay deathly still!

Renny re-holstered his super-firer and went forward to kneel beside Long Tom's recumbent form.  He did not hear the slight movement behind him, so he was surprised when the cold barrel of a rifle nudged the back of his neck...and a guttural voice said, "Please to put your hands up!"

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.