Chapter XII. The Death Cloud
 

Off a lonely wharf in a deserted part of the coast some miles from the promontory which afforded Del Mar his secret submarine harbor, a ship was riding at anchor.

On the wharf a group of men, husky lascars, were straining their eyes at the mysterious craft.

"Here she comes," muttered one of the men, "at last."

From the ship a large yawl had put out. As she approached the wharf it could be seen that she was loaded to the gunwales with cases and boxes. She drew up close to the wharf and the men fell to unloading her, lifting up the boxes as though they were weighted with feathers instead of metal and explosives.

Down the shore, at the same time, behind a huge rock, crouched a rough looking tramp. His interest in the yawl and its cargo was even keener than that of the lascars.

"Supplies," he muttered, moving back cautiously and up the bluff. "I wonder where they are taking them?"

Marcus Del Mar had chosen an old and ruined hotel not far from the shore as his storehouse and arsenal. Already he was there, pacing up and down the rotted veranda which shook under his weight.

"Come, hurry up," he called impatiently as the first of the men carrying a huge box on his back made his appearance up the hill.

One after another they trooped in and Del Mar led them to the hotel, unlocking the door.

Inside, the old hostelry was quite as ramshackle as outside. What had once been the dining-room now held nothing but a long, rickety table and several chairs.

"Put them there," ordered Del Mar, directing the disposal of the cases. "Then you can begin work. I shall be back soon."

He went out and as he did so, two men seized guns from a corner near-by and followed him. On the veranda he paused and turned to the men.

"If any one approaches the house--any one, you understand--make him a prisoner and send for me," he ordered. "If he resists, shoot."

"Yes, sir," they replied, moving over and stationing themselves one at each angle of the narrow paths that ran before the old house.

Del Mar turned and plunged deliberately into the bushes, as if for a cross country walk, unobserved.

Meanwhile, by another path up the bluff, the tramp had made his way parallel to the line taken by the men. He paused at the top of the bluff where some bushes overhung and parted them.

"Their headquarters," he remarked to himself, under his breath.

Elaine, Aunt Josephine and I were on the lawn that forenoon when a groom in resplendent livery came up to us.

"Miss Elaine Dodge?" he bowed.

Elaine took the note he offered and he departed with another bow.

"Oh, isn't that delightful," she cried with pleasure, handing the note to me.

I read it: "The Wilkeshire Country Club will be honored if Miss Dodge and her friends will join the paper chase this afternoon. L.H. Brown, Secretary."

"I suppose a preparation for the fox or drag hunting season?" I queried.

"Yes," she replied. "Will you go?"

"I don't ride very well," I answered, "but I'll go."

"Oh, and here's Mr. Del Mar," she added, turning. "You'll join us at the Wilkeshire hunt in a paper chase this afternoon, surely, Mr. Del Mar?"

"Charmed, I'm sure," he agreed gracefully.

For several minutes we chatted, planning, then he withdrew. "I shall meet you on the way to the Club," he promised.

It was not long before Elaine was ready, and from the stable a groom led three of the best trained cross-country horses in the neighborhood, for old Taylor Dodge, Elaine's father, had been passionately fond of hunting, as had been both Elaine and Aunt Josephine.

We met on the porch and a few minutes later mounted and cantered away. On the road Del Mar joined us and we galloped along to the Hunt Club, careful, however, to save the horses as much as possible for the dash over the fields.

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For some time the uncouth tramp continued gazing fixedly out of the bushes at the deserted hotel.

Suddenly, he heard a noise and dropped flat on the ground, looking keenly about. Through the trees he could see one of Del Mar's men stationed on sentry duty. He was leaning against a tree, on the alert.

The tramp rose cautiously and moved off in another direction to that in which he had been making his way, endeavoring to flank the sentry. Further along, however, another of Del Mar's men was standing in the same attentive manner near a path that led from the woods.

As the tramp approached, the sentry heard a crackle of the brush and stepped forward. Before the tramp knew it, he was covered by a rifle from the sentry in an unexpected quarter.

Any one but the sentry, with half an eye, might have seen that the fear he showed was cleverly feigned. He threw his hands above his head even before he was ordered and in general was the most tractable captive imaginable. The sentry blew a whistle, whereat the other sentry ran in.

"What shall we do with him," asked the captor.

"Master's orders to take any one to the rendezvous," responded the other firmly, "and lock him up."

Together they forced the tramp to march double quick toward the old hotel. One sentry dropped back at the door and the other drove the tramp before him into the hotel, avoiding the big room on the side where the men were at work and forcing him up-stairs to the attic which had once been the servant's quarters.

There was no window in the room and it was empty. The only light came in through a skylight in the roof.

The sentry thrust the tramp into this room and tried a door leading to the next room. It was locked. At the point of his gun the sentry frisked the tramp for weapons, but found none. As he did so the tramp trembled mightily. But no sooner had the sentry gone than the tramp smiled quietly to himself. He tried both doors. They were locked. Then he looked at the skylight and meditated.

Down below, although he did not know it, in the bare dining-room which had been arranged into a sort of chemical laboratory, Del Mar's men were engaged in manufacturing gas bombs much like those used in the war in Europe. Before them was a formidable array of bottles and retorts. The containers for the bombs were large and very brittle globes of hard rubber. As the men made the gas and forced it under tremendous pressure into tubes, they protected themselves by wearing goggles for the eyes and large masks of cloth and saturated cotton over their mouths and noses.

Satisfied with the safety of his captive, the sentry made his way down-stairs and out again to report to Del Mar.

At the bungalow, Del Mar's valet was setting the library in order when he heard a signal in the secret passage. He pressed the button on the desk and opened the panel. From it the sentry entered.

"Where is Mr. Del Mar?" he asked hurriedly, looking around. "We've been followed to the headquarters by a tramp whom I've captured, and I don't know what to do with him."

"He is not here," answered the valet. "He has gone to the Country Club."

"Confound it," returned the sentry, vexed at the enforced waste of time. "Do you think you can reach him?"

"If I hurry, I may," nodded the valet.

"Then do so," directed the sentry.

He moved back into the panel and disappeared while the valet closed it. A moment later he, too, picked up his hat and hurried out.

At the Wilkeshire Club a large number of hunters had arrived for the imitation meet. Elaine, Aunt Josephine, Del Mar and myself rode up and were greeted by them as the Master of Fox Hounds assembled us. Off a bit, a splendid pack of hounds was held by the huntsman while they debated whether to hold a paper chase or to try a drag hunt.

"You start your cross-country riding early," commented Del Mar.

"Yes," answered Elaine. "You see we can hardly wait until autumn and the weather is so fine and cool, we feel that we ought to get into trim during the summer. So we have paper chases and drag hunts as soon as we can, mainly to please the younger set."

The chase was just about to start, when the valet came up. Del Mar caught his eye and excused himself to us. What he said, we could not hear, but Del Mar frowned, nodded and dismissed him.

Just then the horn sounded and we went off, dashing across the road into a field in full chase after the hounds, taking the fences and settling down to a good half hour's run over the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

The hounds had struck the trail, which of course, as was finally decided, was nothing but that laid by an anise-seed bag dragged over the ground. It was none the less, in fact perhaps more interesting for that.

The huntsman winded his horn and mirthful shouts of "Gone away!" sounded in imitation of a real hunt. The blast of the horn once heard is never forgotten, thrilling the blood and urging one on.

The M. F. H. seemed to be everywhere at once, restraining those who were too eager and saving the hounds often from being ridden down by those new to the hunt who pressed them.

Elaine was one of the foremost. Her hunter was one carefully trained, and she knew all the tricks of the game.

Somehow, I got separated, at first, from the rest and followed, until finally I caught up, and then kept behind one of the best riders.

Del Mar also got separated, but, as I afterward learned, by intention, for he deliberately rode out of the course at the first opportunity he had and let Elaine and the rest of us pass without seeing him.

Elaine's blood was up, but somehow, in spite of herself, she went astray, for the hounds had distanced the fleetest riders and she, in an attempt at a short cut over the country which she thought she knew so well, went a mile or so out of the way.

She pulled up in a ravine and looked about. Intently she listened. There was no sign of the hunt. She was hot and tired and thirsty and, at a loss just to join the field again, she took this chance to dismount and drink from a clear stream fed by mountain springs.

As she did so, floating over the peaceful woodland air came the faint strains of the huntsman's horn, far, far off. She looked about, straining her eyes and ears to catch the direction of sound. Just then her horse caught the winding of the horn. His ears went erect and without waiting he instantly galloped off, leaving her. Elaine called and ran after him, but it was too late. She stopped and looked dejectedly as he disappeared. Then she made her way up the side of the ravine, slowly.

On she climbed until, to her surprise, she came to the ruins of an old hotel. She remembered, as a child, when it had been famous as a health resort, but it was all changed now--a wreck. She looked at it a moment, then, as she had nothing better to do, approached it.

She advanced toward a window of the dining-room and looked in.

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Del Mar waited only until the last straggler had passed. Then he dashed off as fast as his horse would carry him straight toward the deserted hotel which served him as headquarters for the supplies he was accumulating. As he rode up, one of his sentries appeared, as if from nowhere, and, seeing who it was, saluted.

"Here, take care of this horse," ordered Del Mar, dismounting and turning the animal over to the man, who led him to the rear of the building as Del Mar entered the front door, after giving a secret signal.

There were his men in goggles and masks at the work, which his knock had interrupted.

"Give me a mask before I enter the room," he ordered of the man who had answered his signal.

The man handed the mask and goggles to him, as well as a coat, which he put on quickly. Then he entered the room and looked at the rapid progress of the work.

"Where's the prisoner?" asked Del Mar a moment later, satisfied at the progress of his men.

"In the attic room," one of his lieutenants indicated.

"I'd like to take a look at him," added Del Mar, just about to turn and leave the room.

As he did so, he happened to glance at one of the windows. There, peering through the broken shutters, was a face--a girl's face-- Elaine!

"Just what I wanted guarded against," he cried angrily, pointing at the window. "Now--get her!"

The men had sprung up at his alarm. They could all see her and with one accord dashed for the door. Elaine sprang back and they ran as they saw that she was warned. In genuine fear now she too ran from the window. But it was too late.

For just then the sentry who had taken Del Mar's horse came from behind the building cutting off her retreat. He seized her just as the other men ran out. Elaine stared. She could make nothing of them. Even Del Mar, in his goggles and breathing mask was unrecognizable.

"Take her inside," he ordered disguising his voice. Then to the sentry he added, "Get on guard again and don't let any one through."

Elaine was hustled into the big deserted hallway of the hotel, just as the tramp had been.

"You may go back to work," Del Mar signed to the other men, who went on, leaving one short but athletic looking fellow with Del Mar and Elaine.

"Lock her up, Shorty," ordered Del Mar, "and bring the other prisoner to me down here."

None too gently the man forced Elaine up-stairs ahead of him.

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In the attic, the tramp, pacing up and down, heard footsteps approach on the stairs and enter the next room.

Quickly he ran to the doorway and peered through the keyhole. There he could see Elaine and the small man enter. He locked the door to the hall, then quickly took a step toward the door into the tramp's room.

There was just time enough for the tramp to see his approach. He ran swiftly and softly over to the further corner and dropped down as if sound asleep. The key turned in the lock and the small man entered, careful to lock the door to Elaine's room. He moved over to where the tramp was feigning sleep.

"Get up," he growled, kicking him.

The tramp sat up, yawning and rubbing his eyes. "Come now, be reasonable," demanded the man. "Follow me."

He started toward the door into the hall. He never reached it. Scarcely was his hand on the knob when the tramp seized him and dragged him to the floor. One hand on the man's throat and his knees on his chest, the tramp tore off the breathing mask and goggles. Already he had the man trussed up and gagged.

Quickly the tramp undressed the man and left him in his underclothes, still struggling to get loose, as he took Shorty's clothes, including the strange head-gear, and unlocked the door into the next room with the key he also took from him.

Elaine was pacing anxiously up and down the little room into which she had been thrown, greatly frightened.

Suddenly the door through which her captor had left opened hurriedly again. A most disreputable looking tramp entered and locked the door again. Elaine started back in fear.

He motioned to her to be quiet. "You'll never get out alive," he whispered, speaking rapidly and thickly, as though to disguise his voice. "Here--take these clothes. Do just as I say. Put them on. Put on the mask and goggles. Cover up your hair. It is your only chance."

He laid the clothes down and went out into the hallway. Outside he listened carefully at the head of the stairs and looked about expecting momentarily to be discovered.

Elaine understood only that suddenly a friend in need had appeared. She changed her clothes quickly, finding fortunately that they fitted her pretty well. By pulling the hat over her hair and the goggles over her eyes and tying on the breathing mask, she made a very presentable man.

Cautiously she pushed open the door into the hallway. There was the tramp. "What shall I do?" she asked.

"Don't talk," he whispered close to her ear. "Go out--and if you meet any one, just salute and walk past."

"Yes--yes, I understand," she nodded back, "and--thank you."

He gave her no time to say more, even if it had been safe, but turned and locked the door of her room.

Trying to keep the old stairway from creaking and betraying her, she went down. She managed to reach the lower hallway without seeing anybody or being discovered. Quietly she went to the door and out. She had not gone far when she met an armed man, the sentry, who had been concealed in the shrubbery.

"Who goes there?" he challenged.

Elaine did not betray herself by speaking, but merely saluted and passed on as fast as she could without exciting further suspicion. Nonplused, the man turned and watched her curiously as she moved away down the path.

"Where's he going?" the sentry muttered, still staring.

Elaine in her eagerness was not looking as carefully where she was going as she was thinking about getting away in safety. Suddenly an overhanging branch of a tree caught her hat and before she knew it pulled it off her head. There was no concealing her golden hair now.

"Stop!" shouted the sentry.

Elaine did not pause, but dived into the bushes on the side of the path, just as the man fired and ran forward, still shouting for her to halt. She ran as fast as she could, pulling off the goggles and mask and looking back now and then in terror at her pursuer who was rapidly gaining on her.

Before she could catch herself she missed her footing and slipped over the edge of a gorge. Down she went, with a rush. It was unfortunate, dangerous, but, after all, it was the only thing that saved her, at least for the time. Half falling, half sliding, scratching herself and tearing her clothes, she descended.

The sentry checked himself just in time at the top of the gorge and leaned as far over the edge as he dared. He raised his gun again and fired. But Elaine's course was so hidden by the trees and so zigzag that he missed again. A moment he hesitated, then started and climbed down after her as fast as he could.

At the bottom of the hill she picked herself up and dashed again into the woods, the sentry still after her and gaining again.

At the same time, we who were still in the chase had circled about the country until we were very near where we started. Following the dogs over a rail fence, I drew up suddenly, hearing a scream.

There was Elaine, on foot, running as if her life depended on it. I needed no second glance. Behind her was a man with a rifle, almost overtaking her.

As luck would have it, the momentum of my horse carried me right at them. Careful to avoid Elaine, I rode square at the man, striking at him viciously with my riding crop before he knew what had struck him.

The fellow dropped, stunned. I leaped from my horse and ran to her, just as the rest of the hunt came up.

Eagerly questioning us, they gathered about.

Having waited until he was sure that Elaine had got away safely, the old tramp slowly and carefully followed down the stairs of the ruined hotel.

As he went down, he heard a shot from the woods. Could it be one of the sentries? He looked about keenly, hesitating just what to do.

In an instant, down below, he heard the scurry of footsteps from the improvised laboratory and shouts. He turned and stealthily ran up-stairs, just as the door opened.

The tramp had not been the only one who had been alarmed by the shot of the sentry.

Del Mar was talking again to the men when it rang out. "What's that?" he exclaimed. "Another intruder?"

The men stared at him blankly, while Del Mar dashed for the door, followed by them all. In the hall he issued his orders quickly.

"Here, you fellows," he called dividing the men, "get outside and see what is doing. You other men follow me. I want you to see if everything's all right up above."

Meanwhile the tramp had gained the upper hallway and dashed past the room which he occupied. Outside, in the hall, Del Mar and his men rushed up to the door of the room in which Elaine had been thrown. It was locked and they broke in. She was gone!

On into the next room they dashed, bearing down this door also. There was Shorty, trussed up in his underclothes. They hastened to release him.

"Where are they--where's the tramp?" demanded Del Mar angrily.

"I think I heard some one on the roof," replied Shorty weakly. He was right. The tramp had managed to get through a scuttle on the roof. Then he climbed down to the edge and began to let himself hand over hand down the lightning rod.

Reaching the ground safely, he scurried about to the back of the building. There, tied, was the horse which Del Mar had ridden to the hunt. He untied it, mounted and dashed off down the path through the woods, taking the shortest cut in the direction of Fort Dale.

Dusty and flecked with foam, the tramp and his mount, a strange combination, were instantly challenged by the sentry at the Fort.

"I must see Lieutenant Woodward immediately," urged the tramp.

A heated argument followed until finally a corporal of the guards was called and led off the tramp toward the headquarters.

It was only a few minutes before Woodward was convinced of the identity of the tramp with his friend, Professor Arnold. At the head of a squad of cavalry, Woodward and the tramp dashed off.

Already on the qui vive, Elaine heard the sound of hoof-beats long before the rest of us crowded around her. For the moment we all stood ready to repel an attack from any quarter.

But it was not meant for us. It was Woodward at the head of a score or so of cavalrymen. With him rode a tramp on a horse which was strangely familiar to me.

"Oh," cried Elaine, "there's the man who saved me!"

As they passed, the tramp paused a moment and looked at us sharply. Although he carefully avoided Elaine's eyes, I fancied that only when he saw that she was safe was he satisfied to gallop off and rejoin the cavalry.

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Around the old hotel, in every direction, Del Mar's men were searching for the tramp and Elaine, while in the hotel another search was in progress.

"Have you discovered anything?" asked Del Mar, entering.

"No, sir," they reported.

"Confound it!" swore Del Mar, going up-stairs again.

Here also were men searching. "Find anything?" he asked briefly.

"No luck," returned one.

Del Mar went on up to the top floor and out through the open scuttle to the roof. "That's how he got away, all right," he muttered to himself, then looking up he exclaimed under his breath, as his eye caught something far off, "The deuce--what's that?"

Leaning down to the scuttle, he called, "Jenkins--my field- glasses--quick!"

One of his men handed them to him and he adjusted them, gazing off intently. There he could see what looked like a squad of cavalry galloping along headed by an officer and a rough looking individual.

"Come--we must get ready for an attack!" he shouted diving down the scuttle again.

In the laboratory dining-room, his men, recalled, hastily took his orders. Each of them seized one of the huge black rubber newly completed gas bombs and ran out, making for a grove near-by.

Quickly as Del Mar had acted, it was not done so fast but that the troop of cavalry as they pulled up on the top of a hill and followed the directing finger of the tramp could see men running to the cover of the grove.

"Forward!" shouted Woodward.

As if all were one machine, the men and horses shot ahead, until they came to the grove about the old hotel. There they dismounted and spread out in a semi-circular order, advancing on the grove. As they did so, shots rang out from behind the trees. Del Mar's men, from the shelter were firing at them. But it seemed hopeless for the fugitives.

"Ready!" ordered Del Mar as the cavalrymen advanced, relentless.

Each of his men picked up one of the big black gas bombs and held it high up over his head.

"Come on!" urged Woodward.

His men broke into a charge on the grove.

"Throw them!" ordered Del Mar.

As far as he could hurl it, each of the men sent one of the black globes hurtling through the air. They fell almost simultaneously, a long line of them, each breaking into a thousand bits. Instantly dense, greenish-yellow fumes seemed to pour forth, enveloping everything. The wind which Del Mar had carefully noted when he chose the position in the grove, was blowing from his men toward the only position from which an attack could be made successfully.

Against Woodward's men as they charged, it seemed as if a tremendous, slow-moving wall of vapor were advancing from the trees. It was only a moment before it completely wrapped them in its stifling, choking, suffocating embrace. Some fell, overcome. Others tried to run, clutching frantically at their throats and rubbing their eyes.

"Get back--quick--till it rolls over," choked Woodward.

Those who were able to do so, picked up their stupefied comrades and retreated, as best they could, stumbling blindly back from the fearful death cloud of chlorine.

Meantime, under cover of this weird defence, Del Mar and his men, their own faces covered and unrecognizable in their breathing masks and goggles, dashed to one side, with a shout and disappeared walking and running behind and even through the safety of their impregnable gas barrier.

More slowly we of the hunt had followed Woodward's cavalry until, some distance off, we stood, witnessing and wondering at the attack. To our utter amazement we saw them carrying off their wounded and stupefied men. We hurried forward and gathered about, offering whatever assistance we could to resuscitate them.

As Elaine and I helped, we saw the unkempt figure of the tramp borne in and laid down. He was not completely overcome, having had presence of mind to tie a handkerchief over his nose and mouth.

Elaine hurried toward him with an exclamation of sympathy. Just recovering full consciousness, he heard her.

With the greatest difficulty, he seemed to summon some reserve force not yet used. He struggled to his feet and staggered off, as though he would escape us.

"What a strange old codger," mused Elaine, looking from me at the retreating figure. "He saved my life--yet he won't even let me thank him--or help him!"