THE BOY ALLIES IN THE BALKAN CAMPAIGN
The Struggle to Save a Nation
By CLAIR W. HAYES
AUTHOR OF "The Boy Allies in Great Peril," "The Boy Allies at Liege," "The Boy Allies on the Firing Line," "The Boy Allies with the Cossacks," "The Boy Allies in the Trenches."
IN THE AIR.
"And how do you feel now, Mr. Stubbs?"
Hal Paine took his eyes from the distance ahead long enough to gaze toward that part of the military aeroplane in which three other figures were seated. It might rather be said, however, that two of the others were seated, for the third figure was huddled up in a little ball, now and then emitting feeble sounds.
In response to Hal's question, this huddled figure straightened itself up long enough to make reply.
"I feel sick," came the answer in a low voice. "How long before we can get back to earth, so that I may die peacefully?"
"Oh, I guess you won't die, Mr. Stubbs," said Hal, chuckling a bit to himself.
He turned his eyes ahead again and gave his entire attention to guiding the swiftly flying craft.
The first streak of dawn had appeared in the east but a few moments before and gradually now it was growing light. High in the air, it was very chilly and those in the aeroplane had drawn their coats closely about them.
"Where do you suppose we are now, Hal?"
This speaker was another of the passengers in the car, Chester Crawford, chum and bosom companion of Hal.
"Somewhere over Central Austria," replied Hal, not taking his eyes from ahead.
"I would rather that it were over Serbia, Montenegro or Greece," said the fourth occupant of the airship, Colonel Harry Anderson of His British Majesty's service. "I'm beginning to get a little cramped up here. I'd like to stretch my legs a bit."
"You won't ever stretch them again, you may be sure of that," said a hollow voice, none other than that of Anthony Stubbs, American war correspondent, who now aroused himself enough to predict dire results.
"What?" said Colonel Anderson. "And why won't I ever stretch my legs again?"
"The undertaker'll do it for you," groaned Stubbs. "This contraption is bound to come down pretty quick and when it does it'll be all off."
"Can't see why that should worry you any," remarked the colonel cheerfully. "It won't be your funeral."
"No, but I'll have one at about the same time," Stubbs moaned. "I go down when you do."
He raised his voice a trifle. "Let's go down, Hal," he continued. "I'm awfully sick."
"Go down nothing," ejaculated Chester. "Think we want to give the Austrians another chance at us, huh?"
"Better be shot by an Austrian than to die in this infernal machine," declared Stubbs in a feeble voice.
"This," said Chester calmly, "is an airship and not an infernal machine."
"Well, it's my idea of an infernal machine, all the same," Stubbs groaned. "We'll all come down in pieces, as sure as you're a foot high."
"Oh, I guess not," said Chester. "We—whoa, there."
He broke off suddenly and seized the side of the machine, as did Colonel Anderson, just as the craft tilted dangerously to one side.
"Help!" came a cry from Stubbs, as he went rolling toward the side of the craft.
There appeared to be no danger that the little man would be thrown out, for the sides of the basket-like craft protected him, but he was plainly frightened and Chester gave him a hand, now that the machine had righted itself again.
"It's all right, Stubbs," the lad said; "no danger at all. Sit up, now."
The little man shook off the hand.
"I don't want to sit up," he whimpered. "I want to jump overboard and end all this suspense. I might as well die now as ten minutes from now. Oh my, I wish—"
"Well, Mr. Stubbs," came Hal's voice, "unless I miss my guess, you are likely to get your wish. Here comes one of the enemy to watch you die."
"What's that?" exclaimed Chester and Colonel Anderson in a single voice.
"Off to the right," replied Hal, quietly.
Glancing in that direction, Chester and Colonel Anderson saw a large air craft headed in their direction.
"After us, do you think?" asked Chester.
"Can't tell," replied Hal, briefly.
"Hardly probable," said Colonel Anderson. "Chances are the fellow believes we are one of his own kind and wants a word with us."
"Maybe you're right," said Hal. "I'll hold to my present course anyhow and take a chance."
The aeroplane continued on as before.
Now Stubbs came to life once more.
"Well, why don't you get a little speed out of this thing?" he demanded. "What are you going to do? Stand right here and let that fellow get us? What's the matter with you, anyhow? Trying to get me killed?"
"Why, Mr. Stubbs," exclaimed Chester, in mock seriousness, "I thought that you were simply dying to be killed. Here's an Austrian coming in direct answer to your prayers. What's the difference whether he gets you now or ten minutes from now? It'll be all the same in a hundred years."
"Think you're smart, don't you," snapped Stubbs. "Why should I want to be killed? I ask you now, why should I want to be killed?"
"Well, really, I don't know," replied Chester, "unless it is because you are so awfully sick."
"Sick!" shouted Stubbs. "Sick! Who said anything about being sick?"
"Why, I understood you to say—"
"Well, you understood wrong. Sick? No, I'm not sick, but we'll all be worse than sick if Hal can't coax a little speed out of this machine. Say!" this to Hal, "what are you waiting for, anyhow?"
"Now you just hold your horses, Stubbs," replied Hal. "I'm running this party at this moment and I'm going to run it my own way. Colonel Anderson, if you hear any more out of our war-corresponding friend, kindly sit on him, will you?"
"With pleasure," replied the colonel briefly.
"Oh, you will, will you?" cried Stubbs. "Well, you won't. I—I'll—"
He subsided after muttering to himself for some moments.
The others now gave their undivided attention to the other craft, which by this time had drawn close to them.
"Man wig-wagging forward, Hal," said Chester.
"I see him," replied Hal, "but I can't make out his signals. Can you, Anderson?"
"No, I can't. He evidently has something to say, though."
"Well," said Hal, "we'll have to hold a sudden council of war. What are we going to do about it? Shall we stop and talk, trying to fool him, or shall we run for it?"
"Well, if we were going to run, it would have been better before he got so close," said Chester. "Guess we may as well see what he has to say. These Austrian uniforms won't come in bad. You do the talking, Hal."
"All right," he said.
He reduced the speed of the machine and the Austrian came closer.
"Ahoy, there!" he said in German. "Who are you?"
"Lieutenant Drizladaz, attached to the Austrian army at Trieste," Hal shouted back.
"What are you doing here?"
"Mission," Hal yelled.
Hal thought quickly.
"Greece," he said finally.
"That," said Hal, "is none of your business. I have my orders and I haven't time to fool around here with you. I'm due back to-morrow night."
There was a moment's silence from the other machine and then a voice called:
"Has your mission anything to do with Greece's intervention in the war?"
"Well, I can't say anything about that," replied the lad, thinking to give the other the impression that it was.
"I see," was the answer shouted back. "Well, I wish you luck. Sorry you can't tell me all about it."
"You probably will know soon enough," replied Hal.
"Good. Don't want any company, do you?"
"No, I guess not."
"You want to be careful crossing the Balkans. I understand there are some British and French aircraft with the Serbians and Montenegrins. Look out for them."
"I'll be on guard," replied Hal. "Thanks for the information."
"Tell you what," said the Austrian, "I've been doing some scout duty there myself. I'll just trail along. May be able to help you out a bit"
Hal didn't think much of this plan.
"I can make it all right myself," he declared.
"Suppose you can," was the reply, "but it is just as well to be on the safe side."
"Well, suit yourself," said Hal, "but don't expect me to wait for you."
"If you can distance me you will have to travel," returned the Austrian. "I've the fastest craft in the service."
"I'm glad to hear that," replied Hal, and added to himself: "I don't think."
"Set your pace," continued the Austrian. "I'll trail along behind."
"No use talking any more, I guess," Hal muttered to his friends. "May as well go along."
Chester and Colonel Anderson nodded their assent and the machine moved forward again.
Things might have gone well had it not been for Stubbs. Suddenly the little man uttered a yell and sat up straight in his seat.
"Ouch!" he shouted. "I've got an awful pain!"
Hal drew a sharp breath and tightened his hold upon the steering wheel.
There was no question that Stubbs' voice had carried to the occupants of the second craft, and as Stubbs had exclaimed aloud in English there was little doubt in the minds of our three friends that the Austrians would seek an explanation. Nor were they wrong.
Came a hail from the Austrian:
"Who've you got aboard, there?"
"Prisoner," replied Hal, thinking quickly.
"What are you doing with him?"
"We—" Hal began, but the Austrian interrupted.
"Spies, that's what you are! Down to the ground now, or I'll put a hole through you."
"Guess it's no use fooling any longer," muttered Hal.
He threw over the elevating lever and the large craft soared rapidly. At the same moment a shot rang out from aboard the Austrian, followed by a cry of surprise, and then the Austrian gave chase.
"Get your guns and see if you can pick 'em off," Hal instructed Chester and Colonel Anderson. "I'll run this thing, but you fellows will have to do the fighting."
"Suits me," responded Chester, examining his revolver carefully.
Colonel Anderson also nodded his agreement to this plan.
Hal now changed his course and the airship headed toward the south, bearing off a trifle to the east, in a direction that he believed, eventually, would land them in Serbia.
It became apparent now that the Austrian had not boasted of the speed of his craft without reason, for he gained perceptibly.
"We can't out-run him, Hal," shouted Chester.
"Then we shall have to try something else," was the reply.
Abruptly he reduced the speed of the craft and the Austrians dashed in range of the revolvers of the fugitives almost before they could have realized it.
Chester and Colonel Anderson had fired. There came a scream of pain from behind and the Austrian craft wobbled crazily. A moment later a man sprang to his feet, sought to retain his footing, threw up his arms and went hurtling into space.
"Got one, Hal!" said Chester, quietly.
Came a volley of small arm fire from behind and bullets whined about the four friends. Again Chester and Colonel Anderson fired almost simultaneously and again their efforts were rewarded. A second man was put out of the fight, as they could see.
At this moment Stubbs came into action.
He arose from his seat and, grasping the side of the speeding craft with his left hand for support, stood to his full height. His right arm drew back, then flashed sharply forward again and a small object went spinning through the air toward the Austrian airship.
It struck home and there was a terrible explosion, followed by several sharp cries of pain, as the Austrian airship seemed to split into a thousand pieces. A moment later these pieces disappeared.
The three friends turned upon Stubbs.
"What is this, magic?" asked Chester in surprise.
"No," replied Stubbs, quietly. "Melenite. I just happened to see a stick of it here, so I threw it."
"Well, you did a pretty good job, Stubbs," said Colonel Anderson.
"I didn't pitch for my college team two years for nothing," returned Stubbs modestly. "But now let's go down. I want to get my feet on the ground again."
"It won't be much longer, Stubbs," said Hal. "Another two hours at this speed should put us across the Serbian frontier. Just be patient."
"I'll wait," replied Stubbs, "but I won't promise to be patient."
He sank back to his place and refused to talk further.
While the big army craft is speeding across Austria it will be a good time to explain the presence of the four friends in their present predicament and introduce them briefly to those who have not met them before.
Hal Paine and Chester Crawford were both American lads. With the former's mother, they had been in Berlin at the outbreak of the great war, and, after a series of interesting and exciting adventures, they made their way to Liege just in time to take part in the defense of that stronghold with the Belgian army.
There they won distinction and lieutenancies in the Belgian service, the latter bestowed upon them by King Albert himself. They had been in France with the British troops that had stopped the German drive on Paris and had gone with the Allied army on its advance. They had seen service on all fronts and now considered themselves veteran campaigners.
Colonel Anderson they had met in Berlin just after the Kaiser had declared war upon France. The colonel, lieutenant then, and Major Derevaux, a Frenchman, had taken the boys with them on their flight and the four had later encountered each other in many strange and unexpected places.
Stubbs they also had met while on one of their many missions and had earned the little man's undying gratitude; but he had repaid whatever they had done for him, with interest, more than once.
The boys, in their latest exploit, had been with the Italian army in the Alps. Two of the four friends having fallen into the hands of the enemy, the others had entered the enemy's lines in an effort to effect their escape.
It was a daring adventure, but after a fight and chase, the four had managed to seize the airship in which we now find them and had at last fought their way clear. They had then held a council of war and decided that it was best to head for the Balkans, rather than to run the gauntlet of the Austrian flying craft which kept constant vigil in the direction of the Italian lines.
Hal and Chester, typical American lads, were large and strong for their ages, which were within a year of each other, seventeen and eighteen now. In the rough lumber camps of the north, the two had had considerable experience in the use of firearms and the art of self-defense—fists. Also, during the school term each had practiced the use of the sword until, though by no means experts, they could give a fair account of themselves with this weapon—as each had done more than once.
Fortunately, both lads had made a study of languages and spoke French and German fluently. They never had trouble on that score.
The great war up to this point had not gone as successfully as the Entente Allies had hoped in the early days. The German lines on all fronts were seemingly stronger than ever before. Even the entrance of Italy into the war on the side of the Allies had failed to turn the balance, as it had been confidently expected it would. East and west, the German lines held, while in the Balkans the enemy was even now advancing against the heroic little Serbian army, which, before many days, was to be forced to relinquish its country to the iron heel of the invader. Montenegro, the smallest factor in the war, still was fighting hard—the rugged and gigantic mountaineers giving a good account of themselves upon all sides.
This was the situation, then, as the airship containing Colonel Anderson, British officer, Anthony Stubbs, American war correspondent, and Hal Paine and Chester Crawford sped southward over Austria.
Several hours after the sinking of the Austrian aeroplane Chester spoke.
"Where do you suppose we are now, Hal?" he asked.
"I believe we must have crossed the frontier," replied Hal. "However, we'll wait another half hour before descending to have a look."
The half hour up, Hal sent the airship lower and lower. Soon, a faint gray speck below became visible, assuming larger and larger proportions, until all aboard made out the ground beneath.
And then, half a mile ahead, a body of troops were seen. Hal checked the speed of the craft immediately.
"Don't know who they are," he explained. "We'll be careful. They may be all right and then again they may not be."
He sent the machine higher again and a few minutes later the craft hung directly above the troops below.
"I can't make out those uniforms," declared Chester.
"Nor I," said Hal. "However, they are not Austrian, I can see that. We'll take a chance and go down."
Again the machine moved closer toward the earth, and a few minutes later came to rest upon the ground a short distance from the main body of troops. A squad of men, let by an officer, came hurriedly forward, covering the four friends with their rifles.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Colonel Anderson. "You must have miscalculated a bit, Hal. I recognize them now."
"Well, who are they?" demanded the lad.
"Good," cried Chester. "Then we are among friends."
The four friends raised their hands in token of surrender as the officer and his men came toward them. A few paces away, the officer halted and addressed them.
Hal shook his head.
"Can't understand that lingo," he exclaimed.
He addressed the officer in English and the officer also indicated that he could not understand.
"Don't want to tackle him in German if I can help it," said Hal. "It might not suit him."
"Well, what's the matter with French?" Chester wanted to know.
"Nothing, I guess," returned Hal. "I'll try him. We are British officers," he said, addressing the Montenegrin officer, "and we have just escaped from the Austrians."
The Montenegrin understood and replied in broken French:
"How am I to know you are not of the enemy?"
"Well, I don't know, to tell the truth," Hal replied with a pleasant smile. "I am afraid it does look a little bad for us, as we have nothing to prove our identities. But if you have a British or French officer about here, perhaps we can convince him."
The Montenegrin nodded.
"Fortunately, we have," he said. He ordered one of his men to summon Colonel Edwards.
"By Jove!" said Anderson. "I know an Edwards. I wonder can it be the same?"
"No such luck, I am afraid," said Chester.
But it was; and a few moments later Colonel Edwards and Colonel Anderson were shaking hands affectionately.
THE KING OF THE MONTENEGRINS.
With his hand upon Edwards' arm, Colonel Anderson approached Hal and Chester.
"I want you to meet my two young friends," he said.
Colonel Edwards shook hands with each lad in turn and then turned to Stubbs, who, during all this time, had been standing quietly, while he cast a critical eye upon the Montenegrin troopers who stood near.
"A likely looking bunch of men," he muttered to himself. "I'll bet they could give a good account of themselves in a—"
He faced about just in time to acknowledge Colonel Anderson's introduction to Colonel Edwards; then turned again to survey the mountaineers.
"Good fighters, these," he said to himself, "or I miss my guess."
"Now," said Hal to Colonel Edwards, "there is really no use of our standing here. I'd like to look up a place where I can turn in for a few winks. I'm dead tired and I imagine the rest of you are, too."
Chester seconded Hal's motion and Colonel Anderson admitted his own fatigue. Stubbs settled the matter.
"Where there are men there are beds," he said; "or at least cots, or pallets, or something. I'm going to find one."
He moved toward a row of tents in the distance.
"Hold on there," said Chester. "We're all going, Stubbs."
In the meantime Colonel Edwards had been holding a consultation with the Montenegrin officer who had first accosted the friends.
"I am sure that if you vouch for them they are all right," said the Montenegrin.
"Thanks," said Edwards. "Then, with your permission, I shall conduct them to my own quarters."
"And you may also make free with mine," said the other.
Again Colonel Edwards expressed his thanks, in which the others joined, and then he led the way toward the distant tents.
Fifteen minutes later the four friends were sleeping soundly, with never a care in the world, for it had been long since they had closed their eyes and they were completely worn out.
Darkness shrouded the small tent when Hal opened his eyes. It was several moments before the lad could gain his bearings, but when at last he realized just where he was he bethought himself of the others.
"Still sleeping, I guess," he said.
He arose, moved to the door of the tent and passed out. A steady rumbling sound fell upon his ears and Hal, momentarily, was unable to account for it. But the solution soon came to him.
"Troops moving," he told himself.
He was right. Walking some distance from the tent, he made out, probably half a mile away, the dark forms of many men as they marched swiftly on in the darkness, their figures lighted up ever and anon by the gleam of a flashlight. But the camp in which the lad stood was perfectly quiet.
"Now I wonder—" he muttered—gazed silently ahead a moment and then turned back toward the tent, saying to himself: "Guess I'll wake the others up."
Chester and Colonel Anderson were aroused without much trouble. Not so Stubbs.
"What's the matter?" came the little man's query, when Hal prodded him gently in the ribs with his foot.
"Time to get up," said Hal, briefly.
For a moment Stubbs opened his eyes and peered into the darkness—for Hal had made no light.
"Get up?" he exclaimed. "What! Anthony Stubbs get up in the middle of the night? Not much!"
"But we are going, Stubbs," said Hal. "We don't want to leave you here by yourself."
"Kind of you," said Stubbs sarcastically. "I can remember when you were not so solicitious of my welfare. Don't worry about me. I'll just sleep right along."
He turned over and a loud snore a few moments later told that he was again in the land of dreams.
Again Hal prodded him with his foot.
"Stubbs! I say, Stubbs!" he called.
Directly Stubbs opened his eyes.
"And what's the matter this time?" he demanded aggrievedly.
"Hurry!" Hal exclaimed, thinking to get the little man up by a ruse. "The Austrians are coming."
"Run, then!" replied Stubbs. "I'll hide here. They won't bother me."
"Now listen here, Stubs," said Chester, "just when do you want to get up?"
Again Stubbs allowed his eyes to open and he peered into the darkness sleepily.
"What day is this?" he inquired mildly.
"Tuesday," replied Chester; "but what—"
"Then call me Saturday," said the little man gently, and closed his eyes in sleep once more.
"Ha! Ha!" laughed Colonel Anderson. "He had you there, Chester."
Chester appeared somewhat flustered.
"Well, he'll have to get up out of there," he said wrathfully.
"Oh, come on and let him be, Chester," said Hal. "I guess nothing will hurt him. We'll be back by daylight and I'll venture to say we will find him here, still snoring."
"Well, all right," Chester agreed at length; "but to tell you the truth, I don't just like that answer he gave me."
The three left the tent and Hal led the way toward where he had so recently perceived the passing troops.
Infantry, cavalry and artillery were still passing in dense masses, moving westward.
"I wonder where they are going?" said Chester.
"To the front, I suppose," replied Hal.
"Now do you really suppose they are?" asked Chester sarcastically. "I thought perhaps they were on dress parade. Say, just where are we anyhow? Do either of you know?"
"By Jove!" exclaimed Colonel Anderson. "I meant to ask Edwards, but I forgot all about it. He told us, you remember, he would be in the tent on our left. We'll go back and have him out. Perhaps we can learn a few things."
"Suits me," Hal agreed. "We can't see anything here but troops, and we have seen too many of them to be much interested. Come on."
Fifteen minutes later found them seated in the tent Colonel Edwards had commandeered for his temporary headquarters and the colonel himself doing the talking.
"You are perhaps fifteen miles northwest of Cettinje, the capital of Montenegro," he explained.
"And where are these troops going?" asked Hal.
"Reinforcements to the Austrian front," said Colonel Edwards. "Also some of them, can they be spared, will be rushed to the aid of the Serbians, who, from all accounts, are being sorely pressed by the new German offensive."
"New German offensive?" exclaimed Hal.
"Why, yes. Haven't you heard of it?"
"No. Will you explain?"
"I'll try," said Colonel Edwards. "I'll revert back to the start. On Friday, August 13, news reached London, where I was then stationed, that an Austro-German army of more than 300,000 men was massing at a point on the Serbian frontier and it was asserted that the Kaiser was about to strike a blow at Serbia in order to improve Teuton prospects in the Balkans, where Roumania and Greece had been reported as waiting a favorable opportunity to join the Allies.
"The great German victories in Russia, following the fall of Warsaw, had, however, caused the Balkan kingdoms to waver, and Bulgaria was said to have strong pro-German leanings. On August 16 the Austro-German army crossed the frontier and began a bombardment of Belgrade, the capital. This led to a crisis in the Greek parliament, where the Venizelos party caused the downfall of the cabinet, which supported the king's attitude of strict neutrality—a neutrality he had promised his consort, who is the sister of the Kaiser, as you know.
"On August 21 Serbia made it known that in accordance with the advice of the Allies, she was willing to grant the demands of Bulgaria for the return of territory taken in the last Balkan war, and for a time it seemed that Bulgaria would enter the war on the side of the Allies. However, on September 19 it was said that Bulgaria would join the Central Powers, thus permitting Germany to establish an unbroken line of allies from the Baltic to the Bosporus.
"On October 5, the Allies, upon invitation of the Greek premier, began the disembarkation of troops at Saloniki to go to the assistance of the Serbians; and, so far as I know, they are still landing."
The three friends had listened attentively to this account of the Balkan situation. They had heard some inkling of the seriousness of the Serbian plight, but had not realized until now that Germany had at last set out to crush the little Balkan kingdom as she had crushed Belgium in the early days of the great war.
"And what is the latest on the Bulgarian attitude?" asked Colonel Anderson.
"Well, I haven't heard anything later than I have told you, but my personal opinion is that Bulgaria, sooner or later, will join the Germans."
"Fools," said Colonel Anderson, briefly.
"And Greece?" inquired Chester.
"I don't know, but I believe Greece will keep out of the war just as long as she possibly can. Certainly, the Greek people will never consent to aiding the Germans."
"You never can tell," said Colonel Anderson sententiously.
Outside the tent it was now growing light, for time had passed swiftly. Hal noticed the light filtering in.
"Great Scott! I had no idea it was morning," he said. "It must have been after midnight when we awoke. Let's get outside."
They left the tent and Hal went into their own quarters a moment, where he found Stubbs up and about to emerge. Together the five walked toward the eastern extremity of the camp.
Came a sudden blaring of trumpets and a body of horse swept toward them. The riders drew rein almost before the friends, dismounted and stood at attention, while a figure who had been in the center also jumped to the ground. This figure of huge stature, a man of advanced age, who dismounted nimbly in spite of his years, walked toward the spot where stood the five friends. Edwards came to attention, as did the others.
"The king!" said Colonel Edwards in a low voice.
INTO THE MOUNTAINS.
Nicholas, king of the Montenegrins, came forward slowly, his head bowed as though in grief, and it seemed for a moment as though he would pass Hal, Chester and the others without seeing them. But even as he drew abreast of the five, he looked up suddenly. His gaze rested upon Colonel Edwards and the Englishman bowed low. Colonel Anderson did likewise. Hal, Chester and Stubbs remained erect.
The king smiled slightly at Colonel Edwards, whom he plainly knew, and glanced inquiringly at the others.
Colonel Edwards approached him.
"Your majesty," he said, "I would crave your permission to present another of my countrymen and three Americans, who have seen service with your allies in the western theater of war."
The king nodded his head affirmatively and Colonel Edwards motioned the others to approach. The king extended a hand to each and spoke a few pleasant words.
"I hope," he said, "that you will make yourselves perfectly at home in my camp. I am sorry I have no better to offer you." He turned to Edwards. "I have faith in you English," he said, "and for that reason I was about to summon you this morning. I have a mission of importance, and some danger, I would have you undertake."
"I shall be pleased, sire" replied Colonel Edwards with a bow.
The king smiled.
"I knew you would be," he said. "Now this mission will necessitate probably more than a single man. You shall pick the others. It seems simple, but I can assure you it is not. Among the Albanian tribesmen, I am told, there is a disposition to doubt the justice of our cause and the cause of our allies. A spirit of unrest is rife there. I would have it looked into. I have faith in the majority of the Albanians, but a few agitators could do much harm right now. The reason I say one man could hardly undertake the task is that he would hardly have time to cover the necessary ground. Two might do; even more would be better."
At this point Colonel Anderson stepped forward.
"If you please, your majesty," he said, and hesitated.
"Speak, sir," said the king.
"If you please, your majesty," Colonel Anderson repeated, "it would give me, and my friends here, the utmost pleasure to be of some slight service to you. With your permission, we shall offer our services to Colonel Edwards."
A smile stole over the king's rugged face.
"I have always said," he declared, "that the British and the Americans come nearer to being like my own people than any others. You have my permission, sir, for yourself and your friends, and I have no doubt of the success of the mission." He turned again to Colonel Edwards. "You will make all possible haste?"
"What we may, with caution," was the reply.
"Good. Then I shall expect you back within the week."
Again all bowed before the king and after a few words of farewell the Montenegrin monarch resumed his walk.
"Well, I feel better now," declared Hal. "We've got something to do, so we won't feel as though we had no business here."
"My sentiments, exactly," agreed Chester.
"Well, they are not mine," declared Stubbs. "Say! what's the matter with you fellows, anyhow? Look at all the trouble we had finding a safe place to come down, and now you are running around looking for more trouble. You are not going to get Anthony Stubbs into any Albanian mountains, I can tell you that."
"You don't have to go if you don't want to, I'm sure," said Colonel Anderson stiffly. "I had no idea you were afraid."
"Afraid!" echoed Stubbs. "And why shouldn't I be afraid, I ask you? Why shouldn't I be afraid, eh? I don't know anything about mountains. I don't know anything about mountaineers. I don't want to know anything about any of them. All I want to do is—"
"Get a little news for the New York Gazette," Chester interrupted.
"Eh?" exclaimed Stubbs. "What's that? News? Sure, I've got to get some news. By George! Might be a good feature story up in those mountains." He turned to Colonel Edwards. "Count me in on this little trip, will you?" he said.
Colonel Edwards hesitated. He didn't know Stubbs as well as the others.
"Well—" he began.
"Oh, he's all right, Colonel," said Hal. "It's just his way. He's no coward. He is no more afraid than you are."
"Don't you believe it, Colonel," said Stubbs. "I assure you I am scared to death. But I am more afraid of losing my job with the New York Gazette than I am of these Albanian mountaineers, so if I go I am just choosing the lesser of two evils. I want to go with you fellows. But please remember one thing: I'm no fighter. If it comes to a fight, you can count me out; but if it's a question of run—well, you'll find me with you, or far ahead."
"Then if the others have no objections, I am sure that I shall be pleased to have you accompany us," said Colonel Edwards.
"And when shall we start?" asked Hal.
"Just as soon as we can."
"Walk, ride, or what?"
"Horses, until we reach the top of the mountains. Then we'll walk. Also, we will discard our uniforms—anyhow, I don't imagine you like the cut of those Austrian garments."
"I don't, and that's the truth," Hal agreed.
"Good. We'll change immediately. You go to my quarters and wait. I'll rustle up some civilian clothes and have them sent you. Also I'll arrange for our mounts and other details. I'll meet you here two hours from now."
With this Colonel Edwards betook himself away and the others returned to his quarters.
Half an hour later the clothes arrived and the four friends hastened to climb into them, Stubbs the while muttering to himself.
"Great Scott, Stubbs!" said Hal at last. "Quit your grumbling. Any one would think you were going to a funeral."
"And so I am—maybe," returned the little man. "And what worries me is that it is likely to be my own."
"You are a cheerful sort of a companion, I must say," declared Chester. "What's the use of yelling before you are hurt?"
"Because I probably won't be able to afterwards," was the reply.
Colonel Edwards was waiting when the four made their way to the appointed spot. The horses were picketed nearby.
"All ready?" asked the colonel. "Guns? Ammunition?"
"Then there is no use waiting longer. We may as well be moving."
He led the way to the horses and leaped lightly to the saddle. The others followed suit. Edwards waited until all were mounted and then headed his horse toward the north.
"Let us ride," he said.
All through the morning hours and well into the afternoon they rode along without adventure. They were challenged several times by Montenegrin outposts, but were allowed to proceed after an explanation by Colonel Edwards.
It was four o'clock by Hal's watch when Colonel Edwards at last drew rein in the far outskirts of a tiny mountain village.
"We'll leave our horses here," said the colonel, dismounting.
He led the way to a small barn near a smaller hut. Approaching the hut he gave a loud whistle. A man emerged and Colonel Edwards engaged him in conversation. At length the man nodded. Colonel Edwards turned to the others.
"We'll turn our horses over to him," he said. "I told him we would be back within seven days and wanted him to keep the animals here for us. He has agreed."
"But will he?" asked Hal.
Colonel Edwards shrugged his shoulders.
"You know as much about it as I do," he replied. "However, we have no choice."
"Well, they might come in handy if we get back," declared Stubbs. "When we return this far we are liable to be in considerable of a hurry, and if the horses were not here it would be a terrible disappointment for us, at least. If we come back, we'll probably come on the run."
"And why will we come on the run?" Chester wanted to know.
"Bayonets behind," returned Stubbs briefly. "Rifles, revolvers and whatnots. Oh, yes, we'll—"
"Stubbs," said Hal severely, "you would be a kill-joy at any feast. When it comes to plain, downright pessimism, you take the cake. Your equal does not exist."
"I'm glad to hear you say I'm good for something," muttered Stubbs.
"Well, if a pessimist is good for anything, you come first always," said Chester.
By this time the mountaineer had stabled their horses. Colonel Edwards gave him a piece of money, and mumbling his thanks, the man moved away.
"Which way?" asked Colonel Anderson.
Colonel Edwards drew a small map from his pocket, which he consulted for some moments.
"About five miles straight along this mountain road," he said at last. "There we cross the Albanian frontier, and there, also, we part company, or some of us do. Some of us will strike off to the right and the others to the left. You know what his majesty said. We would not learn much if we all went together."
"True," returned Hal. "Well, let's be moving."
They trudged along the rough, hilly road at a fair gait; but the walking was difficult and it was almost two hours later that Colonel Edwards again called a halt at what appeared to be a fork in the mountain pass.
"We'll split up here," he said briefly.
"And how?" asked Chester.
"That's up to you fellows. Of course, I'll take charge of one party, and I suppose Colonel Anderson should be entrusted with the other."
"Of course," said Chester. "I'll go with Colonel Anderson. Hal and Stubbs can go with you."
"One way as well as another," was the reply.
And so it was decided. There was a last handshake all around and the two parties went their separate ways—Colonel Anderson and Chester taking the more level trail to the right, and Colonel Edwards, Hal and Stubbs moving off along the rough pass to the left, leading more abruptly upward.
A SHOT FROM AMBUSH.
Up, up and still up the road that Colonel Edwards, Hal and Stubbs had selected continued, winding first to the right and then to the left until all three had practically lost all sense of direction. Hal mentioned this.
"Don't know just where we are," he said.
"No," agreed Colonel Edwards. "However, it doesn't make much difference. We'll be around here for several days. Chances are the sun will come out before we get ready to leave and then we can get our bearings."
"Maybe there won't be any sun," said Stubbs.
"There you go again," said Hal. "Of course there'll be a sun. What's the use of hunting trouble?"
"I'm not hunting trouble," Stubbs disclaimed. "I just said maybe there won't be any sun."
Hal threw up both hands in a gesture of dismay.
"You're beyond hope," he declared.
After what seemed like hours of climbing, though in reality it was not more than two at the most, the three reached what apparently was the top of the mountain, and the road stretched out level ahead of them, heavily shaded on both sides with trees.
"Nice place for a fellow to hide and shoot a man," said Stubbs almost cheerfully.
Hal just looked at the little man but said nothing. Edwards grinned.
"Real cheerful little fellow, aren't you?" he said dryly.
Stubbs grinned back at him.
"I just said—" he began.
"We heard you," interrupted Hal.
The three trudged along silently for a few moments. Then, coming to a place where the trees crowded the road even closer and the branches hung low across their path, Stubbs again broke the silence.
"An assassin—" he began.
The interruption this time came from another source.
The little man's hat suddenly leaped from his head. There was the low whine of a bullet and a rifle cracked from the woods on the left.
Stubbs threw himself to the ground almost before his hat settled near him and he gave a loud cry.
Startled though they were by the unexpectedness of the attack, Colonel Edwards and Hal acted promptly. A revolver flashed in the hand of each and both fired into the woods toward the point from which the shot had come. Then they leaped for shelter among the trees that lined the road on the right. Stubbs, for the moment forgotten, still lay in the road and seemed to be attempting to bury his head in the dirt.
Hal, now sheltered by trees, perceived the little man's plight.
"Can't leave him there," he called to Edwards. "Cover me if you can."
Edwards nodded and held his revolver ready.
Hal dashed quickly from his shelter, grasped Stubbs by the right arm, jerked him violently to his feet and turned his face toward the woods on the right.
Stubbs seemed too frightened to realize in what direction lay safety, and breaking from Hal's hold, whirled about and dashed across the road, almost directly toward the spot from whence had come the shot a few moments before.
Hal gave a cry of dismay and dashed after him. But even as he would have given chase, there came a second rifle shot from the trees and Hal felt the breeze as a bullet sped by his ear. At the same moment Edwards yelled:
Hal wasted no time in thought. He obeyed Edwards' command and dashed back to shelter with all speed.
"Whew!" he muttered. "That was pretty close."
"Rather," agreed Edwards dryly. "Where did the little man get to?"
"Oh, he's over there with our unseen enemy some place. He got away from me."
"I saw him," said Edwards grimly. "He's likely to have a warm time on the other side of the road."
Hal grinned in spite of himself, as he replied:
"He is that. I suppose we should do something to help him, but I am frank to say I don't know just what."
"We'll have to figure some way to get rid of that fellow," said Edwards. "He's dangerous. Apparently there is only one."
"Tell you what," said Hal, "you stick here. I'll sneak through the trees here for a quarter of a mile, cross the road and double back. If I can go quietly enough perhaps I can catch him off his guard."
Edwards considered this plan.
"Might be done," he said finally. "I don't think of anything else. Off with you then."
Hal walked still deeper into the woods and then turned to his left. Keeping himself well screened from the road he made his way carefully and silently along. At last, when he felt sure that he could no longer be seen by their unexpected foe, he approached the road again.
The lad poked his head out cautiously and, after a quick glance back to make sure there was no one in sight, crossed the road at a bound, almost expecting as he did so to hear a bullet whiz near.
No bullet came.
Once safe on the other side, the lad turned again to his left and doubled back. He went more cautiously now, making sure of each footstep that he might not warn the unseen foe of his approach.
In the woods there was the silence of death.
Hal, moving slowly forward, now felt that he must have reached the point from which the two shots had been fired and stopped and listened intently. Once he thought he heard the sound of a snapping twig and became perfectly quiet, waiting for the sound to be repeated; but it did not come again.
"Guess I must have been mistaken," the lad told himself, as he moved forward again.
Five minutes later Hal stopped suddenly in his tracks. He had heard a sound close at hand and knew he was not mistaken this time. A twig had snapped perhaps twenty yards to his right and as far ahead.
Hal grasped his automatic more firmly.
"Hope I get the first shot," he muttered.
Suddenly he caught sight of a form as it flitted from one tree to another. Quickly the lad raised his revolver and fired.
There was no outcry, and looking again, the lad saw no one.
"Missed him," he muttered. "Well, I've betrayed myself! Now I'll have to be more careful."
He lay down upon the ground behind the tree where he had taken shelter and waited patiently. Ten minutes later he thought he saw an object move behind a tree a scant fifteen yards away.
Again the lad fired.
This shot was followed by a startled cry as a figure leaped to its feet and started off through the woods at full speed.
Hal sprang to his feet.
"Halt!" he cried.
The figure seemed to run faster than before.
Hal paused and leveled his revolver in deliberate aim. His finger tightened on the trigger—then, suddenly he let his arm fall.
"Stubbs!" he cried in amazement.
The running figure was indeed the little war correspondent.
"By Jove!" muttered Hal. "Another moment and I would have shot him." He raised his voice in a shout: "Hey, Stubbs!"
But the little man ran on, unheeding.
"He'll run right smack into that other fellow if he doesn't watch out," Hal told himself. "Well, I suppose I'll have to stop him."
Still holding his revolver in his right hand, he also broke into a run and made after the fleeing Stubbs.
Several times he called, but Stubbs paid no heed. Then Hal grew angry.
"I'll get you if I have to chase you right back to the door of the New York Gazette" he muttered to himself.
He gained at every stride and was rapidly overtaking the war correspondent, although Stubbs, with head lowered, looking neither to the right nor to the left, his arms working like pistons, ran blindly on.
Suddenly Hal stopped almost in his tracks and his heart leaped into his throat.
From behind a tree directly in Stubbs' path, stepped a short squat figure, with great long arms dangling at its side. A revolver was clasped in the right hand and the weapon was slowly raised until it covered Stubbs.
Hal gave a loud cry of warning, raised his own revolver and fired. But even as his finger tightened on the trigger he knew he had missed. Stubbs was so close to the other figure that the lad had been afraid of hitting him. Consequently the bullet went wild.
But though it missed its mark, Hal's bullet undoubtedly saved Stubbs' life, for it attracted the attention of the enemy for a brief moment; and in that moment, Anthony Stubbs, still unaware of the danger that confronted him, dashed head first into his would-be slayer.
So great was the force of the impact that both were hurled to the ground. With rare presence of mind, Stubbs, recovering his breath before his unexpected opponent realized what had happened, reached out and procured the other's revolver and hurled it aside.
Then he attempted to get to his feet, but at this point the other came back to life and seized him by the legs.
"Hey! Leggo my legs!" shouted Stubbs.
The other held him tightly.
"Let me up!" cried Stubbs again.
Still the other clung fast, while Stubbs raised a cry for help.
At this juncture Hal reached the combatants. He was about to lend a hand, when he saw that Stubbs' opponent was unarmed, and drew back.
Stubbs did not see him, and apparently believing that he was to get no help, he turned to give battle. He kicked out with his left foot and the foot came free. He followed suit with the right foot and felt it strike something soft. At the same moment there came a cry of pain from Stubbs' opponent and the grasp upon his other leg relaxed.
Quickly the little man leaped to his feet and darted toward the spot where he had thrown the revolver. He snatched it up and leveled it at his adversary.
"Hands up there!" he called.
There came a choking cry from the queer figure and the long arms were raised high in the air.
"Good for you, Stubbs!" cried Hal at this juncture.
Stubbs gazed about sharply.
"About time you were getting here," he said. "I had a terrible fight with this fellow."
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER.
Hal laughed aloud.
"Terrible fight, eh?" he exclaimed. "Of course you did. What else could you do? You had to fight. Pretty lucky, Stubbs."
"Lucky!" echoed Stubbs. "What do you mean, lucky? If you had been here in time to see me tackle this fellow you would have known what a hard time I had."
"I saw you," replied Hal. "You can put down your gun, now. I'll take care of this fellow."
He leveled his own revolver at the queer-looking creature before him and Stubbs placed his newly-acquired revolver in his coat pocket.
Hal motioned to his prisoner to approach. The latter did so with an ugly scowl on his face. He seemed not to have the slightest fear and came up to the lad unflinchingly.
"Speak English?" asked Hal.
There was no reply.
The man nodded.
"Who are you?" demanded Hal.
The man did not reply, and Hal surveyed him critically. He was at least thirty-five years of age, could not have been an inch more than four feet in height, and his long, knotted arms, apparently as strong as a gorilla's, reached almost to the ground, where his huge hand clasped and unclasped nervously. Involuntarily Hal shuddered.
"Must be as strong as an ox," the lad muttered. "Lucky for Stubbs he kicked at the right time and happened to land."
"What's your last name?" the lad demanded again.
"Haven't any," was the reply.
"What are you, an Albanian?"
"What are you doing here?"
The man did not reply.
Stubbs had been an interesting listener to the conversation and became decidedly impatient when the dwarf refused to answer Hal's questions.
"Why don't you speak?" he demanded aggressively, taking a step forward. He felt perfectly safe now that Hal had the man covered.
Instantly there was an unexpected change in the dwarf's manner. He stepped back a pace and bowed his head before the angry Stubbs.
"I did not know that you wished me to answer," he replied civilly. "I will talk to you, for you are the first man who has ever conquered me; and you are a small man, too—a dwarf."
"What's that?" exclaimed Stubbs still more angrily, for "the dwarf" had touched upon a tender spot. "Dwarf, am I? What do you mean by talking to me like that?"
Again he took a step forward and the Albanian drew back.
"You will please excuse me," he said humbly. "I did not mean to offend. For myself I am proud that I am a dwarf and I was glad that it was one of my own kind who conquered me."
Stubbs, greatly flattered, threw out his chest and turned to Hal.
"You see," he exclaimed, "if you have any doubts as to how I overcame this man, he will tell you himself. Won't you, Nik—Nikol?"
"I will, sir," he replied.
"Well, you seem to have done a good job," Hal replied. "I don't believe I could have overcome him. In fact, I am sure of it. Now if you will kindly order your newly made slave to answer my questions, perhaps we may learn something."
Stubbs gave the order in the tone of a man born to command and the dwarf nodded his understanding.
"If my boss knew I could give orders like that, I'd have a better job," was Stubbs' comment as Hal turned to Nikol.
"What are your sympathies in this war?" asked the lad quietly.
"My sympathies," was the reply, "I have kept locked up here," and Nikol tapped his breast with one of his huge fingers. "But, now that my conqueror requests me to talk, I will tell you. My sympathies are with Montenegro; always have been and always will be."
"Good!" exclaimed Hal. "Then perhaps you can tell me something of the Austrian sentiment in these mountains."
"The Austrian sympathy is very strong," was the reply. "Not so much here as further north. Thousands of tribesmen there are only awaiting the arrival of the Austrians to join their ranks. Some have joined already."
"And is there not danger for a man of your sympathies in these parts?"
The Albanian shrugged his shoulders.
"I have said," he replied, "that I keep my sympathies locked up here," and again he tapped his breast.
Hal was silent for a few moments, considering a plan that had come to him. At length he turned to Stubbs.
"Will you ask your newly made friend," he said, "if he will join us? He will be invaluable. He can lead us where we would go without question."
Stubbs grasped the situation instantly.
He put the question to the Albanian. For long minutes the man hesitated, and then he, in turn, asked a question.
"You say that you are working in the interests of Montenegro?" he asked.
"I can give you my word," replied Stubbs soberly.
The dwarf extended a hand to Stubbs and looked him in the eye.
"Such men as you, such fighters as you, do not lie," he said gravely.
Stubbs blushed like a schoolboy as he extended a hand, which was seized in a grip that brought tears to the little man's eyes. But he bore the pain bravely, for he did not wish to lose caste in the eyes of his new admirer.
"Come then," said Hal. "We'll pick up Colonel Edwards again and be moving."
He led the way back to where the first shot had been fired and raised his voice in a shout:
"All right, Edwards?"
"All right," was the reply.
"I've caught the enemy," explained Hal. "You can come from under cover."
He led the way to the road and a moment later Colonel Edwards joined them.
"What have we here?" he exclaimed, after a glance at the dwarf.
"A guide," replied Hal; "the same being the man who fired at us, and also Stubbs' own prisoner."
"Exactly. He captured him single-handed."
Colonel Edwards eyed Stubbs in the greatest surprise, until Hal explained in a low voice, so that neither Stubbs nor the dwarf might hear.
"Well, we may as well be moving then," said Colonel Edwards. "Have your guide take the lead, Stubbs."
Stubbs, undeniably proud at the honor now being bestowed upon him, did as requested, and the dwarf led the way down the road at a rapid gait.
Hour after hour they walked along encountering no one, until shortly before nightfall when they drew up near a small hut. Here Nikol went forward and secured food, which he brought back in his hands. This they devoured hungrily, drank from a little brook, and moved forward again.
Now Nikol deserted the beaten path and struck off through the mountains proper, climbing steep hills, leaping ruts and gullies, rocks and brooks, but making such good progress that the others were hard pressed to keep up with him.
Darkness fell suddenly and Stubbs shuddered.
"Nice place for an assassin here, too," he muttered gloomily.
"Back at it, are you?" said Hal. "What will your friend Nikol say?"
Stubbs did not reply.
Suddenly the dwarf halted and motioned the others to silence. All listened intently and directly made out what the sharp ears of Nikol had caught first—the sound of approaching footsteps.
Nikol motioned the others back into the shadow of a great rock and stepped boldly forward. Then he hesitated a moment, came back and spoke to Stubbs in a low voice, yet loud enough for the others to hear.
"If I should chance to be outmatched," he said, "you will come to my assistance? The others," he snapped his fingers, "are no good. You will come?"
Taken wholly off his guard, Stubbs stuttered and stammered.
"You will come?" Nikol repeated again.
"Ye-e-s, I'll come," Stubbs articulated at last.
Nikol wasted no further time in words, but moved forward perhaps a hundred yards. Then he halted and stood still, waiting.
The sound of footsteps drew nearer and still nearer, and then suddenly Nikol sprang forward, silently and swiftly.
There came a sudden startled cry from ahead and then a great, boisterous laugh.
"Ho! Ho!" exclaimed a voice in French. "Look what has attacked Ivan Vergoff."
For some reason that he could not explain, Hal left his place of concealment and moved toward the combatants. The others followed him.
"Ho! Ho!" came the great voice again. "Ivan Vergoff, the greatest of the Cossacks, attacked by this puny pygmy."
Hal had now approached close enough to see the gigantic figure of Nikol's antagonist and to witness the struggle.
The giant had stooped over and seized Nikol by one arm. He pulled, but the dwarf, his feet firmly planted on the ground, did not budge. It was a great exhibition of strength, for Hal knew that the stranger must be a powerful man.
This time the giant did not laugh.
"A strong man," he muttered aloud. "A strong man, though he be a pygmy."
He now extended another arm, seized the dwarf around the middle and lifted him high above his head. With his right arm the dwarf struck the face that gazed up at him as he was suspended high in the air.
The big man gave a roar like that of an angry bull, hurled the dwarf from him and then jumped after the flying figure with remarkable agility for a man of his huge size.
But even as he would have seized Nikol again, Hal stepped forward.
"Wait!" cried the lad, who had been doing some quick thinking. "Your name is Ivan Vergoff and you are a Cossack?"
The big man paused suddenly and glanced about him.
"Yes!" he shouted. "What of it?"
"Only," replied Hal quietly, "that I bring you word of your brother, Alexis!"
The big man paused and turned an enquiring eye upon Hal, whom he could dimly perceive in the darkness.
"Alexis!" he echoed. "What of him? How do you know I have a brother Alexis?"
Hal replied rapidly in the Russian dialect which he had picked up during his service with the Cossacks, as told in the story of "The Boy Allies With the Cossacks," while the man listened intently. Then the giant set the dwarf upon his feet remarking:
"Now, you just stay there a little while. I may have more to say to you later, but right now I would know something of my brother Alexis, whom I have not seen in years. And my brother Stephan, also, what do you know of him?" he demanded of Hal.
The lad shook his head.
"Not much," he said. "But come, we'll find some spot where we can make a fire and I'll tell you what I know of Alexis."
"Good," boomed the big man. "Follow me."
Without another word he turned on his heel and strode away whence he had come. The other four followed him, Nikol the while muttering angrily to himself.
Stubbs turned upon him suddenly.
"What's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Don't you know it's cold here? I want to sit by the fire awhile. Keep still."
The dwarf made no reply, but became silent. It was plain enough that he stood very much in awe of Stubbs.
After a five-minute walk through the dark woods, the big Cossack wheeled sharply to the left, and walking swiftly for perhaps fifty yards drew up before what appeared to be a solid rock.
Looking closer in the darkness, however, Hal saw a slight opening at the bottom, the space between the rock and the ground being perhaps three feet. The rock, apparently, rested upon more solid ground farther back.
"Follow me," said the big man again.
He dropped on his hands and knees and wriggled through the opening.
At this point Stubbs manifested a desire to leave the others in the lurch.
"Say!" he exclaimed. "You're not going to get me under there. How do you know what he may have in mind to do to us?"
"Come, Stubbs," said Hal. "Don't be a quitter all the time. Nothing is going to hurt—"
Before he could finish his sentence he felt himself seized in a powerful grip from behind. He twisted about with an effort and looked down upon the scowling face of Nikol.
"Here! What's the matter?" he cried.
The dwarf grinned at him evilly, and still retaining his hold, gazed at Stubbs.
"He insulted you," he said. "What shall I do with him?"
"Great Scott! Let him down!" exclaimed the little man, anxiously. "He didn't do anything to me."
"But he insulted you," protested Nikol. "I heard him say—"
"Oh, that was just in fun," cried Stubbs. "Let him go."
The dwarf's hold relaxed and Hal jumped away.
"Don't try any of that on me again," he said, facing Nikol angrily. He turned to Stubbs. "You just instruct this fellow to keep his hands off me, or I shall have to take my gun to him."
"Oh, he didn't mean any harm," Stubbs protested.
"Maybe he didn't and maybe he did," replied Hal. "At any rate, I don't like that kind of treatment. You tell him what I said."
"He was just sticking up for me," said Stubbs, aggrievedly. "But I'll tell him."
He did so, but the dwarf said nothing.
At this juncture the big Cossack poked his head from beneath the rock.
"Are you coming in here or not?" he demanded in a gruff voice.
"Coming," said Hal, dropping to his knees.
"Look here, Hal," said Stubbs, "I don't like the looks of this place. Maybe we had better stay outside."
"Nonsense," Edwards spoke up at this point. "The man means us no harm."
Hal had disappeared beneath the rock and Edwards dropped to his knees and crawled after him.
"Well," said Stubbs to himself, "I don't like this, but I guess I might as well go along."
Motioning Nikol to follow him, he, too, dropped to all fours and crawled slowly beneath the big rock.
Beyond the rock, a brisk fire made dimly visible what appeared to be a large cavern. The fire seemed to be in the exact center of a large underground room and beyond it Hal thought he could make out the mouths of dark passageways that led off in several directions.
"Come up to the fire and get warm," the big Cossack invited.
The others accepted the invitation, first discarding their heavy outer garments. When all appeared comfortable, the big Cossack spoke.
"Now," he said, addressing Hal, "tell me of Alexis. He is—"
"Dead," Hal interrupted quietly.
Ivan sprang to his feet.
"Dead!" he shouted. "And you dare to tell it to me? You, no doubt, had a hand in his death!"
"On the contrary," returned the lad quietly, "I tried to save him, as did my chum; but it was too late. But he died like a brave man and a true Cossack."
Ivan was silent for several moments, and then said sneeringly:
"And what do you know of the Cossacks?"
"Well, very little, to be sure," Hal confessed, "though, for a short time, I had the honor of serving in a Cossack regiment."
"What, you?" exclaimed Ivan incredulously. "Impossible."
"No; what I say is true," said Hal. "And it was there that I met your brother Alexis, than whom I have never seen a braver man."
"'Tis true," muttered Ivan. "Alexis was ever a brave man, though much given to boasting. Also, barring perhaps myself, he was the most powerful man I have ever seen."
"He was indeed," replied Hal, "and it will give me pleasure at some time to relate to you some of the remarkable feats I have seen him accomplish."
"Alexis has related enough," returned Ivan dryly. "But come, now, tell me what you know of him."
"Well," Hal began, "I met Alexis first—"
He stopped suddenly and listened attentively.
"What was that?" he demanded.
"What?" asked Edwards.
"I thought I heard a voice calling. Sounded like a cry for help."
Ivan broke into a loud laugh.
"Ho! Ho!" he cried. "Guess you heard my prisoners."
"Prisoners?" Hal repeated inquiringly.
"Yes. I came across them this afternoon. They sought to ply me with questions. I treated them respectfully enough, but when they continued to plague me, I just picked them up and brought them here. I have a suspicion they may be Austrian spies and if there is one race of men for whom I have no use, it is the Austrians. But they do not annoy you, do they? If so, I shall go back and have a word with them. After that I assure you they will annoy you no more."
"Oh, no," Hal hastened to say. "They do not annoy me in the slightest. But what do you intend to do with them?"
"Well, I don't know exactly," returned Ivan. "You know I have read somewhat, and I remember the things I have read. For instance now, I would like to be like one of the old kings, or say even a present-day American, of whom I have heard much. They have slaves and things. Why not make my prisoners my slaves?"
"I assure you you are wrong about the Americans," said Hal. "I chance to be one myself, so I know. Of kings, I cannot say."
"Never mind," said Ivan. "We'll attend to them later on. Right now I have a desire to hear your story. Proceed."
Hal did so. He related his and Chester's first meeting with Alexis, the big brave-hearted man who had once played an important part in their lives, as related in "The Boy Allies With the Cossacks." He told of the many exciting adventures the three had gone through together.
And as the lad progressed with his narrative, Ivan became more interested with each word; and by the time Hal had come to an account of his brother's last great fight, Ivan was on his feet, his face glowing.
"By St. George!" he cried. "I knew he could do it. Boaster or not, he was a brave man. But go on. And after he had killed the three Germans there on the sand, then what?"
"Why, then," said Hal, "a German bullet struck him in the right shoulder; a moment later another lodged in his right side. But Alexis did not pause. He rushed right into the thick of them, using his now empty pistols and at last striking out with his bare fists. Men tumbled on all sides.
"From behind and from both sides, the Germans darted at him, firing their revolvers and stabbing him with the swords. By this time, we had finished repairing our machine and we rushed to his aid, and for a moment the Germans gave back. Then they closed in and we were all hard pressed. Alexis was bleeding in a dozen places but he fought on. And then aid came from an unexpected source."
"Where?" demanded Ivan excitedly.
"Troops," replied Hal. "Troops sent to protect the neutrality of the country; and with their approach the Germans who were still upon their feet fled. Chester and I dragged Alexis to our own craft and we also ascended. There we did what we could for him, but he realized that he was past aid, and he died as a brave man should. We buried him in England with honor, and with him the Cross of St. George, personally bestowed upon him by the Czar."
For a long time after the lad had finished, Ivan was silent. Then he said, his fists clenching:
"I would I had been there! There would have been a different story to tell!"
Hal was about to reply, but a voice sounded suddenly. Hal pricked up his ears. Surely he recognized that voice. The cry came again.
"Chester!" shouted Hal, and sprang to his feet.
A DESPERATE VENTURE.
Before Ivan could raise a hand to stay him, had such been his intention, Hal had darted across the cavern in the direction from which had come the sound he had recognized as Chester's voice. It was very dark there and the lad could not make out his surroundings, but he seemed to have brought up against a solid wall. He explored the smooth surface with his hands, but could find no opening in that particular spot. Then he came upon one of the narrow passageways and entered it without hesitation, for he believed it was in that direction he would find Chester.
Now heavy footsteps sounded behind him and Ivan's voice roared:
"Where are you going?"
"It is Chester—my friend who was with me when Alexis died," returned Hal. "I heard his voice. He must be near some place and in trouble."
"Ho!" said Ivan. "He will be one of my prisoners, I expect. I remember that one was rather young."
"Well, let him out, will you?" exclaimed Hal.
"Certainly," returned Ivan.
He passed Hal and led the way down the dark passage. Presently Hal heard a huge rock move and then footsteps came toward him.
"Who is it?" he asked.
There came a cry of surprise.
"That you, Hal?" came in Chester's voice. "How on earth did you get here?"
"That's rather a long story," replied Hal, "but it seems that it's a good thing I did get here. I thought a heard a sound awhile back. It must have been you."
"Anderson and I have been yelling for the last week, it seems," said Chester ruefully. "We didn't hope to be fortunate enough to raise you, but we thought some one might hear us."
"Well, come on out here to the fire—and you, too, Colonel," his last to Colonel Anderson, who now came forward, closely followed by Ivan.
They needed no urging, for they had been shut up in the cold so long that they were almost frozen. Introductions now followed all around and Ivan seemed genuinely pleased to meet Chester. He was profuse in his apologies for his rough treatment, while Chester was dumbfounded to learn that his captor was the brother of his old friend Alexis. They shook hands heartily.
"If you had not pestered me with so many questions, I would not have bothered you," Ivan explained. "To tell the truth, I took you for a couple of Austrian spies."
"Tell us, Chester," said Hal, "what have you learned?"
"Learned?" echoed Chester. "We haven't learned anything, except that it is awfully cold in these mountains. I'm going to tell you right now, it's no fun being locked up in an icebox."
"It is not," Colonel Anderson agreed dryly, stretching his feet out to the fire.
"I'll tell you how it came about," said Chester, smiling at Ivan. "Colonel Anderson and I had just completed a most terrible climb. Coming once again to a level spot we sat down to rest. We saw a man coming along—a big man, none other than Ivan here. I suggested that we ask him a few questions."
"You asked them, all right," said Ivan.
"Well," Chester continued, "he didn't tell us much. In fact, he was as mum as an oyster. Colonel Anderson took a hand with no better luck. It seems that between us we talked too much. Ivan here didn't like it. He said he guessed he'd have to take us along with him. We said we were satisfied to stay where we were. This didn't suit Ivan. He reached for me and I dodged; but with his other hand he grabbed Anderson and held him helpless.
"I drew my gun but I was afraid to fire for fear of hitting the Colonel. I thought I would rap the big man over the head with the butt of the weapon. I ventured a trifle too close and he nailed me, too. He shook me so hard that I dropped my gun. Anderson hadn't been able to get at his. Then Ivan relieved him of it, and still holding us each by an arm, he brought us here.
"When he shoved us under the rock ahead of him, we decided to jump him if he came in. We jumped him. It didn't do much good, did it, Colonel?"
Chester turned to Colonel Anderson with a smile.
"Not much," was the Colonel's dry response.
Ivan grinned sheepishly.
"I didn't mean to hurt you too much," he said. "You see, sometimes I don't realize my own strength. I guess maybe I squeezed your arms too hard."
"Well, now tell us about yourself, Hal," said Chester, "and who is this little fellow who hangs so close to Stubbs?"
"This little fellow," returned Hal, "has appointed himself Stubbs' best friend. Stubbs overcame him in fair fight this afternoon and he thinks Stubbs is a great man."
"Well, what's the matter?" Stubbs broke in. "Don't you?"
"Of course," Hal hastened to assure him.
Stubbs subsided grumbling.
"The question now is," Colonel Edwards declared, "what are we going to do? There is no use staying here longer than we can possibly help. We had better be moving."
"Hold on," shouted Ivan, jumping suddenly to his feet. "Tell me what it is you are going to do? Perhaps I may lend a hand. I know something of these mountains."
Colonel Edwards glanced at Hal. The boy nodded.
"Might be a good idea," he said.
Then Colonel Edwards explained. Ivan heard him patiently.
"Well," he said at length, "nothing would please me more than to join this expedition." He spoke to Hal. "You have told me of the service rendered the Czar by my brother Alexis. I am ashamed that I have been idling here in these mountains while my country needs me. I shall try and make up for it in the future. Now, I believe I can tell you what you want to know."
"Then," asked Colonel Edwards, "is there a strong Austrian sentiment among the Albanians?"
"Until a month ago there was little Austrian sentiment," returned Ivan, "But recently there has been a change, and the change I lay at the door of a single man."
"It is even worse than that. The man is a Montenegrin. And still worse. He bears the same name as the king of Montenegro, Nicolas. He has, most likely, another name, but I do not know it."
"But why should a Montenegrin seek to raise the enmity of the Albanians against his own people?" Chester demanded.
"There is but one reason—gold," said Ivan simply.
"And his methods?" inquired Colonel Anderson.
"More gold," was the reply.
"I see," said Colonel Anderson. "Furnished by the Austrians, eh?"
"How else? I have had several interviews with this Nicolas. He seems to think I could be of use to him. In fact, he has made me offers. But while I have taken no part in active fighting, although I admit I have neglected my own country, I have not fallen low enough for that sort of work. However, I did not tell Nicolas that. I temporized with him and I suppose he believes he can win me over if he cares to make his offer tempting enough."
"All this," said Hal slowly, "suggests a plan."
"Well?" said Chester, expectantly.
"And by this plan of mine," Hal continued, "we may accomplish even more than we set out to do."
"Explain, Hal," said Colonel Anderson.
"It's very simple. We'll have Ivan take us to Nicolas. He can tell him we are Germans, or what you please. Being, apparently, friends of Ivan's, we shall be received. Then Ivan can appear to fall in with his plans. At the first opportune moment, we shall take charge of Mr. Nicolas and escape."
"H-m-m-m," mused Colonel Edwards. "You say all that easily enough, but you can take my word for it, it will be no small job."
"Of course not," Chester agreed, "but still we should be able to do it. And if we do, we shall have removed the cause of the Albanian enmity toward Montenegro. There will be no such strong Austrian sentiment once the supply of gold is cut off."
Ivan jumped to his feet and clapped the lad on the back.
"Good!" he exclaimed eagerly. "I'm with you; and if it comes to a fight, you will find that you can use me to advantage."
"I am sure of it," smiled Hal.
Ivan, in turning, cast his eye upon the little dwarfed figure of Nikol. He walked quickly toward him and extended a hand.
"We didn't finish our little argument awhile ago," he said simply. "I see no reason why we should finish it. Why should we fight each other when there are others to fight?" He turned to Hal. "I'll guarantee this man will give a good account of himself," he said. "I doubt if there is another man in the mountains, besides myself, who has his strength. He will prove his worth."
He turned to Nikol again and the dwarf grinned at him, showing strong white teeth.
"You are right," he said and gripped Ivan's hand hard.
"Well then," said Colonel Edwards, "the sooner we get started the sooner we may get back again. When shall we start, Ivan?"
"Immediately," was the reply, and the giant moved toward the mouth of the cavern.
"Now, look-a-here, you fellows," said the voice of Anthony Stubbs. "I've been a whole lot of places with you and I hope to go with you a whole lot more, but I claim it is downright foolishness to stick our heads into a brigand's lair. What's the use? The best we can get is the worst of it."
"Stubbs," said Hal quietly, "you don't have to go along if you don't want to. You can stay right here."
"What?" exclaimed the little man. "Stay here by myself? I should say not. I don't want to stay here alone and I don't want to go hunting brigands. What I want to do is get some place where it's safe. I don't like this country, if you want to know it."
"It's a good country," said Nikol abruptly.
Stubbs looked at the dwarf in surprise. It was the first time the Albanian had talked back to him.
"What do you know about it?" demanded Stubbs. "You never saw a regular country."
The dwarf bowed his head in some confusion. Apparently Stubbs' spell still held good over him.
"Come, Stubbs, don't be stubborn," said Chester.
"Well, all right," said the little man, shaking his head sadly. "I'll go if the rest of you do, but I want to tell you right now, I protest!"
"If I am not mistaken," said Ivan, "here comes Nicolas now."
He pointed to a large, bearded individual, who, surrounded by probably a dozen other figures, was advancing toward them. The man swung along with the free and easy stride of the mountaineer, looking neither to the right nor to the left, his head erect and of haughty mien.
"Pompous sort of a looking customer," said Colonel Anderson to Hal.
"Rather," said the lad dryly. He glanced at the others, Colonel Edwards, Stubbs, Nikol, Ivan and Chester, and muttered hurriedly: "After this we must do all our talking in German."
The others nodded their understanding and all fell silent as the Montenegrin traitor and his henchmen approached.
It was the morning following the night upon which they had left Ivan's retreat. The journey had consumed the whole night, but in spite of their fatigue, each member of the party of seven was on his mettle. Now, as Nicolas drew closer, Ivan took a step in advance of the others to greet him.
The traitor's face lighted with pleasure as he recognized the big Cossack.
"Ah, Ivan," he said, "I am glad to see you."
He noticed the others, and a slight frown flitted across his face. He swept his arm toward them in a comprehensive gesture. "Who are these?"
"One of them you probably know," said Ivan and he indicated Nikol.
Nikol nodded affirmatively.
"The others," Ivan continued, "I came across in the mountains last night. They are Germans and were seeking you."
"Seeking me?" exclaimed Nicolas in astonishment. "And why should they be seeking me?"
"You will probably know," returned Ivan, "when I tell you they come from Germany."
"Ah," said Nicolas. "Of course I know, Ivan. Will you have them come forward?"
"One moment, Nicolas," said Ivan. "First I would have a word with you myself."
"Proceed," said the Montenegrin.
"Well, then," Ivan went on, "you may remember a certain proposal you have made me upon several occasions?"
"I do," exclaimed Nicolas, with unfeigned eagerness. "Can it be that at last you have decided to—"
"Accept?" interrupted Ivan. "Yes; I have decided to accept; and these Germans here have had something to do with my decision. They have told me how Germany and Austria combined will eventually win the great war and of the good things that will be in store for all of us when that day comes. You are right, Nicolas, it is well to be on the winning side."
"And I am glad you see it that way," declared Nicolas, extending a hand, which Ivan grasped, much to his distaste. "I have long wanted a trusted lieutenant, and you shall be he."
"Thanks, Nicolas," returned Ivan. "I had not expected that. Had you told me before it might have influenced me sooner. But now I shall have the others approach. By the way, you speak German?"
"Good; then there is no need of an interpreter."
He raised his hand and at the signal the others came forward. Ivan presented each in turn, applying to each a German name that had been agreed upon during the night's travel. Nicolas expressed his pleasure at seeing them and after a few words of pleasantry, said:
"Now, gentlemen, if you will accompany me to my quarters, I shall try and make you feel at home."
As they walked along Hal and Chester took stock of the Montenegrin. Big he was, fully as tall and as broad as Ivan himself, and his great arms hung below his knees. He was the personification of rugged strength and brutality. From Nicolas the lads turned their eyes to Ivan. There was scarcely a noticeable difference in the stature of the two men and from casual observation it would have been hard to choose between them in the matter of strength. But the one noticeable difference was in the eyes.
Ivan's eyes looked one straight in the face, while Nicolas' shifted uneasily when he was observed closely. It was the difference in the eyes that told the difference between the two men better than anything else.
Presently Nicolas stopped before an extremely large hut, built up close beside a giant rock. He stood aside and motioned the others to enter. They did so and Nicolas, after a word to his men, came in after them and closed the door. Then he motioned them all to seats and sat down himself. He eyed his guests in silence for a few moments, and finally remarked:
Hal took it upon himself to do the talking.
"First," he said, "we would like to know how you are progressing?"
"Beautifully," was Nicolas' reply. "I have distributed the gold given me for that purpose, first, of course, taking out my own share. The Albanians, knowing the poverty of the Montenegrins, have been convinced by the gold that final success in this war must crown the Austrian arms. Austrian sentiment is becoming greater each day. But I need more money."
"That is what we have come to see you about," said Hal. "You see, that while you are well informed as to just what is going on here, we have only your word for it. You may be telling the truth—and you may be lying."
Nicolas jumped to his feet, his fingers twitching.
"You dare—" he began.
"Nonsense," said Hal, remaining perfectly quiet. "This is no time for heroics. I have come here to find out something and I am going to find it out. Now how much of this gold have you given out as ordered, and how much have you kept for yourself?"
"I—I—well, I have—" Nicholas began.
"As I thought," said Hal. "You have been holding out. We can't have anything like that, you know. Where is the gold?"
Nicolas, for a moment, seemed about to make a denial, but Hal eyed him steadily, and he said at last:
"It is under this floor here," and he tapped the floor with his foot.
"All right," said Hal. "In shape to be carried?"
"Why yes, I guess half a dozen men could carry it well enough."
"I am glad to hear that," said Hal, "because I want you to dig it out right now."
Again Nicolas started to protest, but apparently thinking better of it, changed his mind and said:
"It shall be as you say. But you will not hold this against me, my having held some of the gold for my own?"
"Not if you do as I say."
"And I shall have more gold?"
"We shall see; perhaps."
"Then I shall uncover the other," said Nicolas.
He stooped to his knees and lifted a loose board in the floor.
"One moment," said Hal. "Your men outside. We can take no chances with them. If they knew you had all this gold stored here there would be a fight. Step outside and tell them to go away."
This time Nicolas obeyed without even hesitating.
While he was outside, Hal whispered quickly to the others:
"There is no use delaying. We'll give his men time to get out of hearing and then we'll grab him."
"But the gold, what are you going to do with that?" Ivan wanted to know.
Hal smiled a bit.
"I don't know how I happened to think of that," he said, "but now that we practically have it in our hands, I vote that we turn it over to the impoverished little kingdom of Montenegro."
"By Jove! Good!" exclaimed Colonel Edwards. "My boy, you have a wonderful head on your shoulders. I am proud to know you."
"Thanks," said Hal. "Now, as long as I have been doing the talking, I may as well continue. We'll keep quiet until we are sure this traitor's men are out of earshot and then we'll take possession of Mr. Nicolas and his unearned gold."
A few moments later Nicolas re-entered the hut.
"Get rid of them?" asked Hal, briefly.
"Good. Then get busy and bring your gold out."
"Look here," said Nicolas, eyeing Hal somewhat angrily. "I don't like your tone exactly."
"I don't exactly care whether you do or not," returned Hal quietly. "You are pretty small fry in this game, Nicolas, and I'm not afraid of you. Remember, if anything should happen to me, you'll have the German government on your trail, and then what would you do for gold?"
Nicolas opened his mouth to reply; then thought better of it and closed his lips without uttering a sound.
"All right, now that we understand each other," said Hal. "Get to work and produce the gold."
Nicolas waited no further, but did as commanded.
"One," counted Hal, as the man drew from beneath the board a little sack of gold.
One after another Hal counted them as they were laid on the floor at his feet, until in all there were seventeen little sacks, just small enough to permit of being stowed away in outside coat pockets.
"Two for each of us to carry," said Hal, looking around, "and one over. I'll carry the extra one in my hand."
"And don't I get any of this?" demanded Nicolas, looking at the bags of gold longingly.
"You do not," replied Hal, quietly. "This money is to be given where it will do the most good. You have had your chance with it. Now it is my turn."
"Very well," said Nicolas, with a shrug of his shoulders. "But I have made my agreement with the Austrian government; and when the war has been won, I shall get my pay."
"Perhaps," said Hal, with a double meaning, that was, of course, lost upon Nicolas, "you shall receive your just pay before the war ends."
"Do you really think so?" asked Nicolas eagerly. "I hope so."
"But now," said Hal, "it is time to be moving. Pick up the gold, men, and let's get away from here."
The others obeyed. Each stowed two sacks in his pocket and Hal carried the seventeenth package in his hand. Then Hal motioned them out the door. He emerged after them and his hand was on his automatic as he did so.
"Which way?" asked Chester.
"Straight ahead," said Nicolas.
"No," said Hal quietly. "About face. We are going the other way."
"Where to?" demanded Nicolas surlily.
"Right back to Cettinje," replied Hal, "where you shall be turned over to the Montenegrin authorities to meet the fate you deserve!"
Nicolas stopped short in his tracks. His face went red, then white, then flushed a dull red again. For a moment there was a deathly silence and then the Montenegrin sprang toward Hal with a cry of fury. The boy stood his ground.
"I wouldn't if I were you," he said very quietly.
His automatic glistened in his hand at his hip. Nicolas gazed down and then pulled himself up short as his eyes rested on the weapon. He said nothing.
"I'm glad to see you're sensible," Hal continued. "Now you will take the lead, and for your own sake, I advise you to take the shortest cut in the general direction of Cettinje. Ivan, and you, Nikol, will see that he goes in the proper direction."
The dwarf's face was covered by a comical grin and his long arms waved about eagerly as he gave his assent. He turned to Stubbs.
"You will walk with me?" he asked.
For a moment Stubbs hesitated. He gazed first at the little man and then at the great bulk of Nicolas. Then his eyes roved to the huge form of Ivan.
"By Jove! I'd rather be alongside Ivan there," he muttered to himself, "but it wouldn't do to let this little fellow think I'm afraid. You're taking a long chance, Anthony, but I guess you had better do it. All right," he said to Nikol, and ranged himself at the dwarf's side.
"I wouldn't try any tricks if I were you, Nicolas," said Ivan, as he swung into step behind the traitor, Nickol and Stubbs, the prisoner in the center.
Colonel Edwards and Colonel Anderson came next in line and Hal and Chester brought up the rear.
"It's a good two days' journey back," said Hal to Chester, "and, the chances are, we will encounter many of Nicolas' friends en route. We'll have to be careful."
"We shall indeed," returned his chum. "One little slip and there is no telling what may happen."
Night brought them to Ivan's cavern again and there they decided to spend the night. It had now been more than twenty-four hours since they had closed their eyes and all were tired out.
They experienced no difficulty getting Nicolas under the rock into the cavern, nor did the Montenegrin seek to attack them as they crawled after him, as Hal had half feared he would. He seemed completely dejected and downcast. He had not spoken a word during the day's march.
"I'll put him in your erstwhile prison," Ivan said to Chester with a grin. "I guess he'll be safe enough there for the night."
He did so.
"Well, I'm going to turn in," said Stubbs. "I'm dead for sleep. I tell you, it's no fun hoofing it over these mountains, particularly when you are guarding a prisoner like I have been all day, never knowing what minute he may make a break for liberty. No, sir, it's no fun."
"Did you watch him pretty closely, Stubbs?" asked Chester.
"I did," replied Stubbs, briefly.
"Why?" continued Chester. "Afraid he might jump you? Hope you didn't think he could catch you if you had a two-foot start."
Stubbs drew himself up majestically.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded in a ruffled tone.
"Oh, nothing," said Chester, smiling.
"If you mean to insinuate that I was afraid—" began Stubbs in an injured tone.
"What!" interrupted Chester. "You afraid, Mr. Stubbs? You do me an injustice, I assure you. Why, I have seen you fight, Mr. Stubbs. Now, do you, by any chance, remember your battle with three wildcats?"
"I do," said Stubbs, considerably pleased. He turned to Nikol. "Did I ever tell you about that fight?" he asked.
Nikol shook his head and eyed the little war correspondent with interest.
"Well, I did," continued Stubbs. "It was in Belgium. Three of the beasts attacked me in the dark and gave me a terrific struggle. But I killed them all, as these two boys can tell you."
Nikol was all smiles. He was glad that the man who had conquered him was such a royal gladiator.
"And you were not hurt?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing to speak of," said Stubbs, modestly. "A few scratches. Nothing serious."
"They are bad beasts to fool with," said Nikol. "My brother had both eyes scratched out in an encounter with a single wildcat. And you killed three."
"There wasn't much chance of your eyes being scratched out, was there, Mr. Stubbs?" said Chester.
"And why not?" demanded the little man,
"Come now, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester, "you don't mean to tell me you have forgotten you were lying flat on your face dodging bullets when the cats jumped you."
"No, I hadn't forgotten," said Stubbs in an injured tone. "But was it my fault that I had stumbled over a stone in the darkness a moment before?"
"Well, no, possibly not," Chester admitted. "But it's funny you didn't think to mention that stone at the time."
"If you are determined to laugh at me," said Stubbs with an air of ruffled dignity, "I have nothing more to say. Any man is likely to fall."
"So he is, Mr. Stubbs," agreed Chester, "and I don't know but I'd fall myself if I saw three wildcats coming for me. Yes, I would, and I'd try to get my head just as deep in the ground as possible, like an ostrich, and then maybe they couldn't see me."
For a moment Mr. Stubbs glared at the lad angrily and seemed about to speak; then turned on his heel angrily and strode to the far side of the cavern, where was the pallet which had been assigned to him.
Chester broke into a little laugh, which died suddenly as he stared down into the angry face of Nikol, which glared up at him.
There was a deep frown on the dwarf's face and he tapped himself upon the breast with one finger as he said:
"Any man who insults my friend, insults me. You have cast reflections upon my friend's courage. He, being your friend, overlooks it; but I, the man whom he worsted in fair fight, cannot. You must apologize."
Here Hal interfered. He had had such an encounter with the dwarf himself and he understood the situation.
"Hey, Stubbs!" he called. "Come back here, quick!"
Stubbs, just about to lie down upon his pallet, hurried back. He took in the situation at a glance and turned upon Nikol angrily.
"Here," he cried. "You keep out of my quarrels. I was big enough to attend to you, I can do the same with the rest of them."
"But he said—" protested the dwarf, pointing a finger at Chester.
"I don't care what he said," Stubbs said. "I can fight my own battles."
Nikol, deeply offended, drew back, and without another word, walked to the pallet that had been assigned to him. Stubbs, feeling somewhat better now that he had been able to berate some one and thus soothe his injured feelings, also stalked away without another word and lay down on his pallet. A moment later he was fast asleep.
"Do you suppose there is need for one of us to stand watch, Ivan?" asked Hal.
"I do not believe so," was the reply. "No one knows where my cavern is and we are not likely to be disturbed."
"I vote we turn in immediately then," said Colonel Edwards.
"Second the motion," said Colonel Anderson. "We've got to be on the move early and we've got to have some sleep first."
"Here goes, then," said Chester, and moved to his own place.
The others also sought their pallets and soon there was silence in the cavern. Completely worn out, the travelers slept like logs.
Several hours later, had they not been so completely exhausted, the sleepers undoubtedly would have heard strange noises from that part of the cavern in which Nicolas had been confined.
Came a faint grinding sound, which gradually became louder and louder, but which, after a time, ceased altogether. Then came a softer sound, that of footsteps coming slowly from the dark passageway; and a moment later Nicolas himself stepped into the glare of the fire.
His clothing was torn about the shoulders and his open hands dripped little drops of blood. He rubbed them together tenderly.
"Had I been a weaker man it would have been impossible," he muttered.
For he had pushed aside the heavy rock that guarded his prison—a rock that Ivan had believed not another man save himself could move. Apparently Nicolas had been underestimated.
Now the Montenegrin moved softly toward the entrance to the cave, fearful at every step that he would awaken the sleepers. It was dark within and this fact probably is all that prevented his escape.
In moving toward the entrance he passed close to the pallet upon which Stubbs slept. One of the little man's hands was stretched out across the floor and Nicolas' heavy boot came down squarely upon it.
A sudden loud cry shattered the deathly stillness of the night, followed by a more piercing cry.
Instantly every one was awake, though only half so, for the awakening had come so suddenly.
At Stubbs' first outcry, Nicolas, with a muttered imprecation, had dashed for the exit. He fell upon his knees and was about to crawl outside when Nikol, more wide awake than the others, flung himself forward and clasped his long arms about the Montenegrin's neck.
Nicolas drew back in the cave and pulled himself to his feet in spite of the dwarf's frantic efforts to hold him down. Then, seeing the size of his opponent, Nicolas laughed aloud and sought to fling the little man from him. But Nikol held him firmly.
But in spite of the dwarf's great strength, Nicolas was too big and powerful for him. The powerfulness the dwarf might have overcome, but the size was too much.
Plucking away the arms that were tightened about his neck, Nicolas held the dwarf away from him with his left hand, then struck him heavily in the face with his right. Taking a step more toward the center of the cavern, he hurled his opponent across the room.
Nikol struck the floor with a thud and lay still.
Now, realizing the need of haste, Nicolas turned quickly and made as though to move toward the exit. But he had delayed too long. The dwarf's efforts to hold him, though futile, had been enough to prevent the Montenegrin's escape.
A second huge form—the form of Ivan—barred the exit.
"Come on, have a try," said Ivan, with a grin.
Nicolas gave a loud cry—the cry of a cornered beast. Then he sprang.
"I'll kill you!" he yelled in a voice of thunder.
All the others in the cavern were on their feet now, all save Nikol, who still lay unconscious where Nicolas had hurled him. Stubbs shrank back in the dark, but Hal, Chester and the two British officers quickly produced revolvers with which they covered Nicolas.
Ivan, out of the tail of his eye, caught sight of these movements. He let out a roar even as Nicolas sprang upon him.
"Put up those guns!" he shouted. "I'll attend to this fellow with my bare hands. Stand back!"
There was something in the voice of the big Cossack that impelled the others to obey; and they drew back, circling about to watch the struggle. Even Stubbs picked up courage enough to come forward; and hardly had the fight begun when Nikol, too, pulled himself up and cast his eyes upon the combatants.
Nicolas sprang upon Ivan with outstretched arms, his fingers spread wide. His object was to clasp one of his strong hands about Ivan's throat, thus obtaining an advantage at the outset. But Ivan had divined his intention at the moment he sprang, and ducking with remarkable agility for a man of his size, he came up inside the other's arms and grasped his opponent around the middle with both arms.
Then he squeezed; and the spectators drew their breaths audibly, for it seemed that no man could stand such a strain. But Nicolas bore up under it, and when Ivan, out of wind, was forced to relinquish his hold, Nicolas whirled upon him quickly and the fingers of his left hand sank into the Cossack's throat. Chester uttered a faint cry of alarm, for a hold such as this, obtained by such a powerful man as Nicolas, was indeed a thing to be feared. Ivan leaped quickly backward, carrying Nicolas with him, but the latter retained his hold; and then he brought his right fist up under Ivan's chin. It was a hard blow and Ivan staggered.
With his left hand, Nicolas jerked the big Cossack forward again, and shot his right fist into Ivan's face as he did so. Then, apparently thinking his opponent done for, he released his grip on Ivan's throat and stepped back.
But he had counted without the endurance and courage of the giant Cossack. The fingers about his throat gone, Ivan, his head reeling dizzily from the effects of the hold and the two hard blows, staggered back several paces; then, with a loud cry, sprang forward again.
Nicolas also cried aloud as he stepped forward to meet the antagonist he considered all but beaten. Ivan came forward with arms outstretched, and unheeding the two hard blows that Nicolas struck him, he again grasped the Montenegrin in a tight embrace. Nicolas wrapped his arms about Ivan; and there they stood for the space of several seconds, each vainly trying to move the other.
Suddenly Ivan gave back a step and as Nicolas came forward with him, the Cossack thrust a leg behind his opponent and pushed with all his might. Nicolas was caught off his balance and before he could recover himself Ivan twisted sharply with his leg. Nicolas went over backwards, with Ivan on top of him.