Queen of the flaming dia.., p.6
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       Queen of the Flaming Diamond, p.6

           Leroy Yerxa
 
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for?"

  "To finish murdering a race of people," Drake answered coldly. "A jobthat he started when he found the Flaming Diamond. If he has a chance,he'll finish the task to get it back again."

  "Shut up, back there!" A lean, sharp nosed individual in the seatahead turned slightly. "No talk now. You'll have plenty of chancelater on."

  A ripple of hard laughter went through the cabin.

  George Lardner was an expert pilot. More than that, he was familiarwith the country over which they were flying. Realizing that anyattempt to escape now would be futile, Drake tried to memorize thelayout of the small valley into which Lardner seemed to be heading.

  With the entire country a white layer of blowing snow it was difficultto make out the sharp walls of granite that arose from the cup-shapedhole below. It was like a huge bomb crater, perhaps ten miles across.On the valley bottom was the smoothly swept blue-green of a frozenlake.

  The plane banked abruptly and Lardner cut the motors. Drake felt thetenseness mount within the cabin. A fear was filling these StateStreet gunmen that had never troubled them before. The motors weresilent. The ship dropped below the lip of the canyon wall and the winddied smoothly. Circling, Lardner gunned the motors again and roared instraight over the strip of frozen ice.

  Try as he might Drake could see no sign of life or human habitation.Heavy fir trees came straight to the edge of the lake, standing guardstiff and frozen.

  The plane zoomed up sharply and cut back over the lake leaving a blackshadow against the ice. It sank down, bounced gently and rolled ahead.They went straight toward the high cliff at the far end of the lake.

  "This guy better know what he's doing." Puffy clutched the chair aheadand held on grimly. "Or we'll crack up like a broken match againstthat wall."

  Drake was silent. A murmur of anxious voices arose about them. Theystill rolled swiftly toward the cliff. Lardner seemed to make noattempt to cut speed. The plane took the bump at the edge of the lake,and then Drake saw the cavern ahead. It was huge and black, cut at anangle in the surface of the rock. A sudden blur of rock walls and theywere in the darkness of the cave. The plane settled back roughly onits shock absorbers and stopped. Lights flashed on within the cabin.

  * * * * *

  George Lardner pushed through the small communication door between thepilot's cabin and the waiting gangsters. As he came, he jerked thehelmet and goggles from his eyes. A hard smile on his heavy face leftno doubt as to his frame of mind.

  "Hello, Drake," the mouth a mask of expressionless hate. "I take myhat off to you. Never gave Cinderella Drake credit for being anythingbut a whiskey mill."

  Jim stood up slowly, knowing these minutes might be his last. Fear wasin his heart. Not for himself, but for the doom that faced SylviaFanton unless she could be warned of Lardner's coming. There was nodoubt in Jim Drake's mind that this frozen valley was the home of thefox people and their queen.

  Lardner wasn't the soft night club owner now. The man was short andstocky, but with bulging arms that were tensed for action. The darkface was filled with devilish purpose.

  "I'd like to know why we weren't thrown out of the plane last nightwith the others?" Drake said quietly.

  "Oh! That?" Lardner chuckled. "I knew you were headed toward thisvalley and I thought you'd appreciate the lift."

  "For your information," Drake answered coolly, "we took the plane forWinnipeg. Where we are now I haven't the slightest idea."

  George Lardner started toward the outer door. He whipped aroundsavagely, his face twisted into a hateful grimace.

  "All right, play boy," he snapped. "You asked for it. Now it's myturn. I know you helped Sylvia Fanton to escape. I know you had a partin stealing the diamond, and I also know you are in love with thegirl. That, if you'll have the truth, is why you are with us now."

  A hissing sigh escaped Puffy Adams' lips. He was beginning tounderstand now why Lardner had not shot them both long ago.

  "So I am to act as decoy," Drake said. "If you think I'll let youtorture that girl, you're a madman."

  Lardner ignored him. He pushed the outer door of the cabin open anddropped heavily to the cave floor.

  "Unpack your stuff, boys," he ordered crisply. "And keep an eye on ourguests. I want them to be safe and comfortable."

  The gangsters closed in, and some of them started for the baggagecompartment.

  A ring of steel closed about the pair.

  "Out, quick," one of the plug uglies mumbled. "And don't try to getaway."

  * * * * *

  To Drake's surprise the cave was warm, as though heated from somevast, hidden source of fire. Lardner was well ahead of them, goingcautiously down the long tunnel. A flash-light sent its beam ahead ofhis outstretched hand. The baggage was handed down quickly and tommyguns came into sight from the instrument cases. They were smoothlypolished and glistened under the dull light of lanterns. They followedLardner slowly down the vast hall that led under the lip of themountain. It was warmer and more humid now.

  "The boss knows what he's doing," a voice said behind Drake. "Thesefox people can't do us any harm during the day. By night we'll beready to blast them down in short order."

  Unable to speak to Puffy, Drake was thinking plenty. If they went onto wherever the tunnel led them, it would be too late to face Lardnerwith any show of force. Drake knew that Sylvia Fanton would be caughtoff guard if she were here. Could he raise some sort of alarm?

  The man at his side seemed a trifle sleepy and disinterested in whatwas going on. Making sure the man's gun was pointed away where hewouldn't jerk the trigger, Drake lifted an arm high, pointing towardthe dark roof of the cave. Pretending fright, he shouted:

  "Oh my God! Look!"

  Before Lardner could control them, two men had raised their guns andsent salvos of lead screaming into the darkness. Lardner's voice,ahead in the shaft, shattered the silence that followed with wildoaths.

  "Who the hell did that?" He stormed back toward Drake, but Jim waswell satisfied with what he had done. The sound would carry for milesinto the base of the mountain. If Sylvia or her people were here....

  From far down the shaft a faint bark echoed clearly. It was the barkof a fox, followed in quick succession by more of the same sounds.

  George Lardner faced him, neck red and arms akimbo.

  "You're getting too damned clever for your own good," he shouted. "Ioughta' knock some of the cockiness out of you."

  Drake had a slow temper. But behind the Cinderella Drake who had sousedhimself so thoroughly in Lardner's whiskey still lurked the keen eyedair patrol cadet who had only six months ago put his body throughevery air battle on the west coast. Some of the old strength and nervewere coming back now. Coming with a rush of hot blood to his head.

  Puffy Adams had sworn he'd stick by Drake until that spirit returned.Now, ringed in by steel death, Adams' face lighted with interest. Yet,he realized that Drake had small chance against these bums.

  The cave was dead silent again. Lardner breathed hard, crouched likean oversized wrestler about to spring.

  * * * * *

  Drake's face was suddenly cold, emotionless.

  "If your men weren't ready to shoot me down the minute I move," hesaid slowly, "I'd pound you within an inch of your rotten life."

  Lardner's face lighted slowly and a sardonic grin crossed his face.

  "Talk big, play boy," he urged. "I don't need lead to put you out ofthe way."

  Drake's slim body shot forward with the suddenness of a catapult. Hisshoulders were low as they struck Lardner's thick belly. Caught offguard, Lardner's heavy, ape arms twisted about Jim's waist and hestarted to crush Drake's body against his own. With a quick twistDrake was loose, dodging backward as a light left caught Lardner onthe chest. Lardner jumped in quickly, puffing hard. His right armswept out and brought blood to Drake's nose.

  The slim air cadet shook his head, feeling the sting on his face. Hebrushed an arm acr
oss his nose, and felt warm blood on his fingers.This time Drake went in low, caught Lardner with his left hand justabove the belt. The big man bent over with a grunt as Drake's rightclimbed under his chin like a looping Spitfire. Jim Drake's right fistwent home with the entire impact of his shoulder behind it. He felt atwinge of pain shoot through his arm as Lardner's head swept backwardwith a jerk. The fat man stumbled and sat down abruptly. He lookedsurprised and frightened, shaking his head back and forth like anangry bull.

  "You dirty...." Lardner didn't attempt to rise. His face was flamingred. "Shoot the legs out from under him."

  A tommy came up swiftly, trained on Drake.

  "Hold it!" A harsh, almost frightened voice came from the shadows bythe wall.

  Puffy Adams stood, back to the granite, sweeping a tommy gun around onthe gang of men. His trigger finger was poised easily, the gun slungcarelessly in the curve of his arm. His voice, frightened for Drake,became cool as he saw the last gun drop toward the floor.

  "One shot," he said, "and I'll poke enough lead into your boss to keepyou rats from ever flying anywhere again."

  Drake was at his side now.

  "How did you manage it?" he whispered.

  "Black-jack," Puffy grinned. "They were interested in you. It wasn'thard."

  * * * * *

  George Lardner was frightened. The tommy gun was aimed at his head andhe knew Puffy Adams wouldn't hesitate when the time came to shoot. Hesat up slowly, eyes on the pair by the wall. Then like a shot herolled quickly over and over into the darkness beyond the lightedarea. His voice, harsh and powerful shouted.

  "Get them, quick!"

  A hail of lead swept the air over his head as Puffy jerked backward.

  "It's the firing squad," Adams shouted. He dropped to one knee andopened up wide.

  Lardner was snarling something unintelligible. Guns swept around onthe men by the wall. Then from within the circle of men compressedhell broke loose. Someone was opening up a deadly fire from within theranks. Gunmen screamed in pain and turned their guns in everydirection, trying to determine who had betrayed them.

  "Run for it, Drake. Down the tunnel."

  The voice was vaguely familiar. Drake didn't hesitate. He clutchedAdams' arm and together they dashed into the blackness ahead. Frombehind them, the sound of gun shots ceased. Only loud groans of paindrifted to them as they went forward through the midnight blackness.Then, far behind, single footsteps followed them hesitantly.

  Lardner was still alive. Drake had heard him curse softly as theypassed him. He felt blood on Puffy's arm.

  "You're hurt," he said quietly. "Where did it hit?"

  "Just a nick." Puffy sounded game. "Glanced off the shoulder. A bit ofshirt will fix it up. Say! That was a nice poke you took at Lardner."

  * * * * *

  The tunnel grew wider. Far ahead a pale shower of colored light tossedagainst the walls like a weak rainbow. There wasn't a sound ahead orbehind them. Drake led the way swiftly. The light seemed stronger,drawing them toward its source.

  Then they stood on the edge of a great chamber. From the walls of thecircular room a barbaric curtain of rainbowed color sprayed downtoward its center.

  It flashed and changed as they watched with wide eyes, changing intorich shades of purple, gold, orchid and startling the eye with itseverchanging spectrum.

  In the direct center of the chamber on a raised dais stood the hugecarved statue of a marble polar bear. It towered ten feet high, amagnificent standing beast with lifted outstretched paw. On the backof the bear a small throne had been carved. The blinding flood ofcolor that converged on the throne, hid anything that might be seatedthere.

  Drake clutched his companion's arm.

  "Look!"

  He pointed toward the low pit that surrounded the statue.

  Puffy nodded.

  "The biggest fox farm in the world," he said dryly. "Or I'm goingnuts."

  As their eyes grew accustomed to the changing light, the pit grewclear. The animals became visible against the floor of the pit. Therewere thousands of them lying about the chamber. They spread over thefloor carpeting it with rich fur like a deep rug of precious black andsilver.

  One thing held Jim Drake spellbound. Every animal had its head liftedtoward the throne atop the bear's back.

  His eyes lifted again slowly. His vision broke through the bright hazeof light. Stretched out in sleep across the stony back was the perfectnude figure of a girl. She seemed frozen in death, yet the bronzedflesh was alive and throbbing. It was the same girl he had saved fromWildwood Zoo--_Sylvia Fanton_!

  * * * * *

  He tried to take his eyes away from the vision but could not. Colorseemed to splash and caress her body as though it alone gave her thepower to exist. Then he knew what it was that made her look human. Thelight preserved her body during daylight hours, or she would have beenforced to enter the body of a fox and mingle in the pit with her ownkind.

  A queen, Queen of the Flaming Diamond, doomed to lie dead until shecould be restored to her normal life.

  "What do we do now?" Puffy asked in a tense whisper.

  "What I want to know first," Drake said wonderingly, "is who saved usfrom Lardner's mob?"

  "Whoever it was," Adams offered, "he'll never escape them alive."

  Soft footsteps came from behind them.

  "But you are wrong!"

  Drake pivoted, and faced the same man whom he had met in the apartmentthat night he lost the fur. The man who brought his last message fromSylvia Fanton.

  "You see," the man went on quietly, "I am not your enemy. I asked youto stay out of this, but I could not desert you."

  Drake's face was lighted in a relieved smile. His hand gripped theother's.

  "Now you have saved our life, why did you do it?"

  "Because," the man said simply, "you are human and you are good.Sylvia Fanton asked me to help you, and I am her brother."

  Puffy Adams sat down abruptly on the cave floor.

  "And I," he said unbelievingly, "am the keeper of Cinderella Drake,the sap who still looks for the silver slipper."

  "But Sylvia is no fox woman," Drake protested. "She's too warm, toohuman!"

  For a moment there was silence. Then a warm smile lighted thestranger's eyes.

  "We are all human," he said. "We are early settlers who came to thisvalley and sought its sanctuary. Only the curse of George Lardner hasspoiled our paradise and driven us into animal form. Perhaps you willsee...."

  * * * * *

  He looked hurriedly at the light that was growing dimmer above them.The rainbow had faded swiftly and darkness was coming down on thecavern.

  "I am Silvaris, King of the Fox People," he said swiftly. "On theFlaming Diamond depends our ability to exist. Night is almost upon usagain, but unless the diamond can be restored to the paw of the bear,there will be no more night or day."

  "But you have it!" Drake protested. "Lardner came here to get it backagain...."

  "Lardner came by mistake to this valley six months ago," Silvaris saidbrokenly. "We welcomed him as we welcome all people. He betrayed ourtrust and stole our life source. We took him to our hearts as Sylviaand I were taken many years ago."

  "Then you aren't really of the same race?" Drake's voice was filledwith relief.

  Silvaris shook his head.

  "We are here by our own choice," he went on. "Sylvia and I, lostchildren, found our way here from a trapper's cabin when we were veryyoung. We never tried to leave. When Lardner stole our precious gem,she and I alone knew the ways of civilization. It was our task toreturn the stone to its rightful place."

  "If that diamond is the solution of this mess," Puffy asked in apuzzled voice, "why don't we clean up the mystery right now?"

  "Wait!"

  Silvaris went slowly down the long steps to the fox pit. He climbedthe steps to the side of the polar bear and his sister's lifelessbod
y. From her armpit, he took a huge gem. As he came toward them,Drake knew it was the Lardner stone, flashing and alive in thesemi-darkness.

  He pushed it into Drake's hands.

  "Somehow Lardner pawned a paste imitation of the real Flaming Diamondoff on us that night in Chicago," Silvaris said sadly. "The real stoneis the only gem that will make the transformation."

  Drake examined the diamond curiously.

  "Hey!" Puffy said excitedly. "Wait a minute. How come Lardner is soalmighty hot after us, if he thinks we've only got a paste?"

  "That I cannot explain," Silvaris admitted helplessly. "I purposelydisguised myself to mingle with his men. He came to destroy us and yethe knows our life is short now that the diamond is gone. We cannotlive long as animals."

  * * * * *

  Far away toward the mouth of the tunnel came the sound of an idlingmotor. Drake sprang into action.

  "I think," he said, "that we can outplay Lardner at whatever game he'splaying. He must be wounded. Perhaps too badly to fly."

  The face of Silvaris, the Fox King, lightened.

  "You are a pilot?" he asked.

  Puffy chuckled.

  "Cinderella can fly the blind spots off a Jap Zero," he said. "Juststrap a pair of wings on him."

  They charged
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