Книга Quest of the Spider. Содержание - Chapter xii. human sacrifice


HAM and Long Tom plunked into the water in one-two succession. They collided as they kicked in the depths. Together, they stroked to the top.

Doc's bronze head was not in evidence.

Dйbris from the dynamited levee still rained. The stuff ranged from steel splinters to clods as large as pork barrels. The rear half of the roadster dived beneath the surface with a loud gurgling.

Ham and Long Tom sank hastily to keep from being brained by dropping wreckage. They realized now that the roadster, in hitting the raised stick had closed an electrical contact which released the blast.

Swimming under water, Ham and Long Tom reached the concealment of canes which grew along the levee edge.

"Where's Doc?" Ham groaned. "He should have come to the top before now!"

"Maybe—" Long Tom shivered and didn't finish. Maybe a flying missile, driven by the explosive, had pierced Doc's giant bronze form! It was possible!

Racing feet spatted the levee. Hoarse commands were gobbled in the jargon the swamp men spoke. A machine gun vomited a string of concussions.

Long Tom and Ham sank wildly as copronickel bullets scored the water about their heads. They arose deeper in the gloom beneath the canes.

Over where the blast had occurred, great bubbles were arising. They made gruesome glub-glub sounds. Air escaping from the submerged roadster caused them. One arose now that seemed large as a tub.

"Ugh!" shuddered Ham. "Why don't Doc come up?"

Long Tom gave a hoarse gasp. "Look! As if the devils above us weren't enough!"

Perhaps three score feet distant, two knots had projected from the bayou surface. They resembled a pair of black fists held close together.

"'Gator!" Ham muttered. "The infernal things feed at night, too!"

The eyes of the alligator sank.

"Yo' come on out!" rasped one of the swamp men from the levee.

Ham and Long Tom made no answer. They fingered their compact little machine guns.

Suddenly a storm of slugs from the aircraft type weapons above them poured downward. The rank canes were chewed and split as by the fangs of an invisible, wood-devouring monster.

Ham and Long Tom saw they were at a hopeless disadvantage. They held their fire, not wishing to start a fight to the finish.

"Yo' no be keeled if yo' come out!" called the swamp man. "Gray Spider ees want to talk to yo'!"

The speaker swore at the machine gunners, silencing them. Then he waited to see what Ham and Long Tom would do.

"Doc!" Ham croaked. "He hasn't shown up yet!"

"We've got to do somethin'!" Long Tom hissed. Desperate, he called up to the swamp men. "We will surrender if you'll let us dive a few times in search of our leader!"

The answer came promptly. "Go ahead an' dive!"

"You promise you won't shoot us?" Long Tom asked.

"Yo' won't be shot. Me—I geeve yo' de word of Buck Boontown on eet!"

The leader of their attackers was Buck Boontown!

Swiftly, Ham and Long Tom swam out and dived. They groped repeatedly in the depths, seeking the giant bronze form of Doc Savage. Horror closed swiftly upon their hearts as they found no trace of Doc. Only mud and foul water plants lay on the bayou bottom, perhaps a dozen feet down.

A loathsome gurgling of bubbles still came from the sunken roadster. It was as though the car were a living thing and life was slowly departing from it.

Long Tom and Ham searched around the machine several times. Their spirits, weighted like lead, they stroked listlessly to the surface.

"Maybe he swam away," Long Tom mumbled hopefully. "He can stay under water for many minutes."

"I hope so," Ham agreed.

But a horrible sight was soon to drive even this faint hope from them.

"Yo' climb up here!" commanded Buck Boontown harshly.

* * *

THERE was nothing else to do. Long Tom and Ham crawled up the steep side of the levee. The swamp men seized upon them. Their arms were taken. Many an admiring gasp went up at sight of the tiny, superefficient machine guns. A monkey man appropriated Ham's sword cane.

"We should've fought it out!" Ham gritted.

"They'd have gotten us!" Long Tom assured him. "They must have at least twenty of those aircraft machine guns. And with that metal-reлnforced leather harness they wear, I'll bet they can hold the weapons on a target without trouble."

Now came the ghastly incident they were to witness. It was by far the most shocking thing their eyes had ever beheld. Seeing it turned their very blood to water and left them despondent and crushed.


— look!" shouted a swamp man.

All eyes went to a point a few score of feet out on the bayou. At this spot, the water was boiling. A great, hideous form was threshing only a foot or so down. A tapering, ridged tail squirmed into view for an instant.

"Gator!" croaked Ham. "The infernal thing has got something!"

The jaws of the alligator abruptly appeared. Moonlight glistened on the repulsive, sand-colored teeth.

Affixed in the teeth was a mighty bronze human arm!

The 'gator seemed to be worrying the limp body to which the arm was attached.

It sank from sight, leaving nothing but a turmoil of water to show where it had been.

Ham shrieked like a madman. He clutched at one of the swamp men's machine guns. He was driven to madness by the awful thing he had just seen. He wanted the rapid firer to slay the alligator.

He didn't get the gun. A swamp man nearly shot him. Buck Boontown's angry roar was all that saved Ham's life.

Long Tom also put forth a short struggle. A machine gun barrel swept against his head and stunned him. When he revived, his wrists were lashed.

Ham was also bound.

"Walk!" commanded Buck Boontown.

The cavalcade moved down the road. Soon they turned into the swamp. A labyrinth of palmettos, swamp maples, tupelo gums, cane, vines and creepers and loathsome aлrial moss closed in upon them.

At times they sank to their waists in mire that had a sickening stench. They trod rotting logs over what appeared to be bottomless abysses of slime. Once they took entirely to an aлrial thoroughfare of branches and lianas for some hundreds of yards.

The devilish little swamp men showed an amazing agility at getting through what would have seemed an impenetrable barrier of vegetation. But at frequent intervals even they were almost baffled by the steaming, festering tangle of the swamp.

* * *

LONG TOM and Ham paid no attention to the passage of time. They even took no particular pains to avoid the treacherous vines and slime pools in their, path. As a consequence, they were frequently kicked.

The resultant pain, they hardly felt. For nothing could be greater than the ache that came from the knowledge that they had lost their friend, the man to whom they owed their lives many times over—Doc Savage.

They held no hope of ever seeing the mighty bronze man again. The hoo-hoo-hoorooing of swamp owls made a sort of awful dirge to accompany their grief.

But, as they floundered deeper into the vast swamp, another and scarcely less ominous sound joined the macabre tooting of the owls.

"Listen!" muttered Ham.

Faintly, there reached their ears a monotonous drumming note. This rose and fell. One moment it would roll across the vast, foul-quagmire like syncopated thunder. The next it fell to a muted mutter, like fingers softly slapping a sponge.

It was as though the great swamp were a panting beast.

Periodically, there lifted over this unending sound a shrill caterwauling, as of a cat with its tail stepped on. Hoarser barks and howls were commingled.

The noise was altogether hideous.

"Ugh!" muttered Long Tom. "I can guess what that is!"

"So can I," Ham replied listlessly. "A voodoo ritual!"

"Notice how it's affecting our captors!" said Long Tom.

Subtle excitement was pervading the ugly little swamp men. They clucked to each other in a language so degenerate that Ham and Long Tom could hardly understand it.

Later, when they came for a moment into a moonlight glade, Long Tom and Ham observed that their captors were doing a sort of revolting muscle dance in time with the throbbing. It was as though the measured beats of the tom-toms inflicted muscular convulsions upon their bodies.

Even Ham and Long Tom found themselves unpleasantly affected by the barbaric cadence. Indeed, Long Tom, discovering his shoulders jerking to the savage tune, swore violently—something he rarely did.

"I've heard the music at these rituals has a sort of crazing effect," Ham muttered. "I can believe it after listening to this. It's more than I've ever expected in all my life."

Long Tom shuddered. "One might expect something like this in a country of savages—but right here in the United States! Ugh!"

They came soon to a circular hill. It was no more than two score of feet above the swamp. In the center was a bowl-shaped hollow, a natural amphitheater.

Standing on the rim of this, Long Tom and Ham surveyed such a tableau of barbarism as they had never expected to see within the confines of the United States.

* * *

A STRING of small fires burned in the bottom of the hollow. These were greenish, and from the nauseating odor they cast off, evidently were kindled from wood which had been treated with sulphur. No doubt the string of blazes was intended to represent a serpent, for snake deities have a prominent place in most voodoo cults.

Numerous masked figures were near the fires. Some of them leaped and spun like hideous dervishes. Others merely sat and jerked their muscles in tune with the tom-toms. All wore masks.

The beaters of the tom-toms sat farther back. From time to time, they emitted a loud howl. They were unmasked.

It was upon the masks of the men in the center of the hollow that Long Tom and Ham rested their gaze.

These were of gaudy silk!

"Remember that flashy silk handkerchief Horace Haas carried in his coat pocket?" Ham inquired.

"Yes," replied Long Tom. "Why?"

"I was just thinking," Ham muttered. He didn't elaborate on his thoughts.

Around the edges of the hollow huddled row after row of the vicious, monkeylike swamp dwellers. Long Tom and Ham were astounded at seeing so many present. Their number must run into the hundreds!

The whole ceremony had the air of something that would last for many hours, perhaps days. Gourds filled with a greenish liquor that was dipped from a troughlike container made of a hollow log, passed among the assembled voodooists quite often.

"Some kind of a vile dope the Gray Spider has fixed up for them, I'll bet!" Ham declared. "Brings them under his sway easier!"

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