The Blond Spiders/Chapter 8

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VIII

HANDS up!”

For the falling of an eggshell to the floor there was silence.

Peering incredulously at the muzzle of a revolver in the hands of a stocky, grizzled man against the oblong of sapphire which was the open door, the Herr Doktor stood beside the staring sergeant with one hand already in the air upon the skull of Sawyer, whose jaw had fallen. A beam of moonlight through the window and the glow of the lamp turned the heads into three masks in silver and gold.

The officers’ cropped heads, immediately beneath the light, resembled three ripe and yellow gooseberries. At the far end of the table von Muhlhauser’s eyes bulged above his brazen beard like two fat fish swimming beneath the crags of his bushy eyebrows. One hand, sparkling with rings, stuck out, arrested in a gesture.

“The lamp!”

The Kommandant’s yell was as the touch upon a secret spring loosing mechanism into mad activity.

As simultaneously two officers and the sergeant grasped and began to obey the order, two revolvers spat twice each. At the first double discharge one man with a broken wrist dropped his gun; another slumped back into his chair, shot through the head.

At the second the Kommandant’s whirled chair smashed the lamp; somebody swore gutturally; somebody grunted.

For a moment the beam of the moon stabbed across darkness upon the back of von Muhlhauser’s bald skull, to leap back to the window as if terrified as the body of the lamp crashed on the table and burst into flames.

“Get the doc!" yelled Tony to Plessons; and, fearing to kill the Kommandant, dropped his rifle, sprang and swung his left on to the bearded jaw as von Muhlhauser was grabbing for his revolver belt, which had fallen off the chair back.

As Tony continued the motion to give the Kommandant a quietus with the revolver barrel, a bullet crashed into the wall above his stooping back. Whirling, he knocked up the third officer’s muzzle and saw the man’s face split redly in the flame of his gun. Then, swinging about, he tapped the head of the Kommandant just as the latter had wriggled around and grabbed his own revolver.

Another shot crashed in the confined space; and, turning, Tony saw in the light of the flaming tablecloth the officer with the broken wrist dive through the doorway after a bullet from Plessons had caught him through the shoulder blades.

Grabbing von Muhlhauser’s fallen revolver and placing a foot on his stomach, to give warning when he regained consciousness, Tony looked about him.

His gaze took in the body of the sergeant slumped across a chair with his face smashed in from a vicious blow from Sawyer, who stood in the corner strapping the Doktor’s hands with his belt. Just then Plessons leaped and, snatching the blazing cloth and the wreck of the lamp, hurled them outside. They alighted on top of the wounded officer, who half rose to his feet, scrambled a couple of yards and collapsed as yells and the sound of running boots arose.

The rough table made of logs sawn in half was already saturated with paraffin and afire. Seizing two legs, Tony tried to overturn it, but the legs would not budge for they were set in the ground, the table top being merely laid upon four posts; so, yelling to Sawyer to grab his end, they ran it through the door, where luckily it fell up side down on the wreckage of the lamp, partially extinguishing the flames, just as Plessons, firing from the end window, dropped two of the soldiers rushing up in the moonlight. Then as Tony joined in from the door, sending another man to earth, the others turned about and with oaths and yells made for shelter.

“Yah!” shouted Sawyer triumphantly. “We’ll put it all over em, the ——!”

And in his exuberance he planted a boot in the prostrate sergeant’s ribs so vigorously that it brought the latter to life. Seemingly in one motion, he had his arms around Sawyer’s legs, bringing him crashing to the ground.

“Aie-e!” squalled Sawyer as they heaved together. “Mind my leg, can’t yer, yer ——!”

“Shut up,” commanded Tony, “or I’ll tap you on the head. Listen; what’s that, Plessons?”

Above the grunting and cursing on the floor rose a queer muffled sound, a kind of hoo-hooing from outside the camp.

“Why it’s them dumb fellas hee-hawing!” exclaimed Plessons. “Gettin’ excited abaht——

A sharp crack, preceding a fusillade, interrupted him. Several bullets whee’d through the cheese cloth window frame and others smacked against the outside of the walls, which were fortunately double bricked.

“I’ll kill yer, yer ——” Sawyer was grunting from the ground.

“Here, Plessons, help pry those mutts loose,” Tony snapped angrily. “That fellow will do to interpret. My German isn’t strong.”

Fumbling in the dark hurriedly, they both tore away arms, swore when they discovered they were operating on the same man while the other did his best to choke him, and finally dragged them apart. A revolver muzzle in the pit of the stomach quieted the guttural spitting sergeant, and he allowed himself to be tied. In the mean time several more fusillades had whistled through, and smacked against, the hut.

“Quick! Take that window, Sawyer, and cut out that sob stuff. Here’s a gat. Watch they don’t rush the door, Plessons, and I’ll stir up the All Highest.”

He turned just in time. As the Kommandant was crawling through the door Tony leaped, seized him by the leg, dragged him back like a pig without the squeals, and poked a revolver against his ear. But von Muhlhauser, possibly guessing his captor’s reluctance to shoot, silently tried to fling himself on Tony.

But he had started too near the ground for a fair chance, so that Tony easily twisted him off his feet, got him down and knelt on his stomach while Plessons tied him to one of the table posts.

“He’s got guts, all right,” admitted Tony as he arose panting.

The independent firing had ceased at a gruff command in German. The strange hoo-hooing continued.

“Yes,” agreed Plessons, “they didn’t cave in like some of ’em do.”

“Prussians, shouldn’t wonder. They’re mean, but they aren’t white-livered. Listen! Guess some officer or non-com’s pulling ’em together. But I bet we’ve got ’em puzzled. They’ll know who it is, but probably won’t know how many. Sawyer, drag out the professor and let’s have a look at him. That’s it.”

“Help! Help!” promptly yelled the Doktor in German at full-lung pressure.

“Heh,” growled Sawyer, “shut yer head, will yer?”

“Let him be,” said Tony. “That’s just what we want—to let them know he’s alive. Go to it, professor!”

But the professor, understanding English, refused to comply.

“Now you, sergeant,” continued Tony, addressing the big form looming in the gloom, “tell your people that we’re going to stick you and the professor in the windows and the Kommandant in the door, so if any one shoots they’ll get them. Understand?”

Ja,” answered the sergeant; “but I gan not do dat until the Herr Kommandant gommand me.”

“Oh yer won’t, won’t yer——

“For ——’s sake, shut up!” exclaimed Tony furiously. “You’re worse than a hysterical old woman. Keep your mouth shut until you’re told to speak.”

“What’re yer giving us? Ain’t I——

“Plessons, put a bullet through that fool if he butts in again. Now, sergeant, your Kommandant isn’t talking just now——

“Sergeant,” came von Muhlhauser’s voice in German, giving Tony the lie, “tell Herr Oberleutnant that he is to consider us dead and to charge, putting each of these men to to the sword instantly—no matter what the cost, for this valley must be saved for the Fatherland. D’you hear?”

Ja, Excellenz,” assented the sergeant in a deep, grave tone.

“But they will slay me!” broke in the Herr Doktor. “And what then will become of the future?”

“Silence!” commanded von Muhlhauser sternly.

“Gag that man—quick!” snapped Tony.

Herr Oberleutnant Schnitzel!" the sergeant had begun in stentorian tones when Plessons’ fingers quashed the rest while Tony rammed a handkerchief into the Kommandant's mouth.

“What were they gassin’ abaht?” queried Plessons as he completed his job.

“They’ve got sand,” said Tony gravely. “But we can’t take fancy chances. What the —— are they up to now?”

A HAIL from without brought him to the edge of the door. The wounded officer had crawled away.

“What are your orders, Excellenz?” repeated the voice in German.

Herren Excellenz, Doktor, and the sergeant are our prisoners,” shouted Tony in broken German. “Come—come— What in ——’s negotiate?—come to talk!”

“Who are you?”

“American explorers.”

Interrupting them came another swirl of hoo-hooing louder than before and at the tail the single hoarse scream.

“You must surrender,” came another German voice but in English. “You are entirely surrounded. We have a machine gun—ja, two!”

“That doesn’t matter. We have three prisoners—your chief as well.”

“That is not regulations of war. You gan not shoot prisoners. I haf been in America.”

“Cripes!” muttered Plessons. “Ain’t he saucy?”

“Shouldn’t talk so much about that, Fritz,” retorted Tony. “And this isn’t war anyway. You’re just bandits. This isn’t your territory, and you attacked us and shot one of our men without provocation. Also you’ve got another American here. Now come across if you know so darned much about the States.”

Came a pause and the hum of voices disputing, the while the hoo-hooing continued.

“Vot you vant?” the interpreter shouted.

“The release of any white prisoners you may have and the handing over of this property to the proper authorities; and,” he added, quickened to sudden heat by memories, “the freeing of these poor ——s you’ve mutilated. And take your medicine. That’s that. Get me?”

“You go to ——, you dirty Yank!” bawled the voice.

“Fine!” responded Tony savagely. “But you’ll have to come and send me!”

——, ain’t he the lad?” commented Plessons. “Don’t you fink his ma learned him properly!”

“Bull,” growled Sawyer.

“That’s enough,” snapped Tony. “Get to your window, Sawyer.”

Obediently Sawyer hopped on his one leg to his post. Guttural talking was going on beyond the huts on the other side of the street. Again rose that queer, hoarse scream like a madman in pain, and to the persistent murmur of the hoo-hoo was added the strange clinking of metal.

Herr Amerikan!” hailed the officer who had first addressed them.

“Hello!*’

“If you will surrender we will allow you to go free,” he continued in German. “You understand?”

Ja, I understand, lieutenant,” replied Tony in English. “Tell him, you hyphen American, that we don’t surrender on any terms but our own.”

A mumble of voices and then—

“The Herr Leutnant says,” came again the interpreter’s voice, “we shall gome and take you, and if the brisoners are injured you shall dig your graves, ja!

“And very naice, too!” commented Plesson’s sotto voce, “and I’ll bet him half a quid they’ll do the diggin’, my oath!”

“Come right along!” bawled Tony. “Only be careful you don’t shoot your own men and say we massacred ’em!”

Then, untying von Muhlhauser’s bonds which fastened him to the table post, Tony dumped him in the corner on the door side, saying:

“Say, Plessons, see those other two fellows are in the opposite comer, will you? They can’t possibly get winged there.”

“Righto, gov’nor!” assented the Australian.

“But say, Mr. Westlake,” butted in Sawyer, not so fresh this time, “ain’t yer going ter stick ’em in the winders like yer said?”

“Of course not,” retorted Tony. “That was only bluff.”

“But them Huns did it wi’ women and chil——

“Shut up!” snapped Tony. “What in —— d’you know about it anyway?”

“He’s finkin’ of the cinema what he’s seen,” said Plessons with a laugh.

For once Sawyer had no comeback save an inarticulate grunt.

“I’ll take the door, Plessons, and you’d better take the two windows. Guess they’ll get us anyway by one of ’em if they do rush us. And just one thing. If we’re out of luck—get this, Sawyer—don’t let ’em take you prisoner.”

“I’m wiv yer, gov’nor!”

——!” was Sawyer’s succinct comment.

Then, preceded by a slight commotion in the corner, suddenly a voice broke.

“Schnitzel!” roared the Kommandant in German. “Charge for God and the Kaiser!”

Profiting by the movement in his removal to safety, von Muhlhauser had worked loose his gag. As Tony leaped to replace it there came an answering shout.

“I wish I knew how many men they’ve got,” remarked Tony conversationally as he gathered up his revolvers.

“What’s the odds, gov’nor!” said Plessons from his window. “Nah then, this is where the bloomin’ balloon goes up!” he added, and as a sharp, guttural command rang out he opened fire. “Wop! Got yer, ol’ dear! Ev’ry time—yer hits—Aunt Sally—yer gets—a coker nut!”

From each of five opposite huts on the street darted four or five men, belching scarlet flashes as they ran.

Tony, from one side—he would have been shot to pieces had he stood in the door—emptied both revolvers and clubbed his rifle. As they closed in he yelled to Plessons, who, grabbing another rifle, leaped for the other side of the door.

“Bat ’em as they come!” gasped Tony. “Get us—anyway—from the window!”

Then just as the foremost of the charging soldiers butted foolishly together in the doorway and were shot and clubbed, there rose above a hoo-hooing which resembled a rising gale at sea an indubitable American voice, yelling:

“Attaboy! Get ’em, you black ——s!”

Guns crashed amid red flames in the doorway against agitated black figures silhouetted by the moon-greened western sky. Forms plunged forward into the room beneath Tony’s rifle butt. Sweat blinded his eyes.

He struck empty air; heard Sawyer’s revolver crash behind him and Plessons swear.

Then his left arm sagged; he found himself leaning gasping against the doorpost and was conscious that the night was filled with a strange, hoarse screaming.

Intermittent flashes of guns came from small groups, about which black gnomes leaped in a fantastic dance, flourishing flat things that flashed dully in the moonlight.

Of a sudden the world began to rock; a tall, bearded white was weaving up and down on the billows of the ground toward him, and Plessons at a great distance was saying—

“Cripes, them pore dumb blokes has been and gawn and turned on em!”