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torn away as though the paper had once been tacked upon wood, and
then torn down without removing the tacks.

At sight of it Barney's heart sank. The look of the thing was all
too familiar. Before the yellow one had commenced to read aloud from
it Barney had repeated to himself the words he knew were coming.

"'Gray eyes,'" read the brigand, "'brown hair, and a full,
reddish-brown beard.' Herman and Friedrich, my dear children, you
have stumbled upon the richest haul in all Lutha. Down upon your
marrow-bones, you swine, and rub your low-born noses in the dirt
before your king."

The others looked their surprise.

"The king?" one cried.

"Behold!" cried Yellow Franz. "Leopold of Lutha!"

He waved a ham-like hand toward Barney.

Among the rough men was a young smooth-faced boy, and now with wide
eyes he pressed forward to get a nearer view of the wonderful person
of a king.

"Take a good look at him, Rudolph," cried Yellow Franz. "It is the
first and will probably be the last time you will ever see a king.
Kings seldom visit the court of their fellow monarch, Yellow Franz
of the Black Mountains.

"Come, my children, remove his majesty's sword, lest he fall and
stick himself upon it, and then prepare the royal chamber, seeing to
it that it be made so comfortable that Leopold will remain with us a
long time. Rudolph, fetch food and water for his majesty, and see to
it that the silver plates and the golden goblets are well scoured
and polished up."

They conducted Barney to a miserable lean-to shack at one side of
the clearing, and for a while the motley crew loitered about
bandying coarse jests at the expense of the "king." The boy,
Rudolph, brought food and water, he alone of them all evincing the
slightest respect or awe for the royalty of their unwilling guest.

After a time the men tired of the sport of king-baiting, for Barney
showed neither rancor nor outraged majesty at their keenest thrusts,
instead, often joining in the laugh with them at his own expense.
They thought it odd that the king should hold his dignity in so low
esteem, but that he was king they never doubted, attributing his
denials to a disposition to deceive them, and rob them of the
"king's ransom" they had already commenced to consider as their own.

Shortly after Barney arrived at the rendezvous he saw a messenger
dispatched by Yellow Franz, and from the repeated gestures toward
himself that had accompanied the giant's instructions to his
emissary, Barney was positive that the man's errand had to do with
him.

After the men had left his prison, leaving the boy standing
awkwardly in wide-eyed contemplation of his august charge, the
American ventured to open a conversation with his youthful keeper.

"Aren't you rather young to be starting in the bandit business,
Rudolph?" asked Barney, who had taken a fancy to the youth.

"I do not want to be a bandit, your majesty," whispered the lad;
"but my father owes Yellow Franz a great sum of money, and as he
could not pay the debt Yellow Franz stole me from my home and says
that he will keep me until my father pays him, and that if he does
not pay he will make a bandit of me, and that then some day I shall
be caught and hanged until I am dead."

"Can't you escape?" asked the young man. "It would seem to me that
there would be many opportunities for you to get away undetected."

"There are, but I dare not. Yellow Franz says that if I run away he
will be sure to come across me some day again and that then he will
kill me."

Barney laughed.

"He is just talking, my boy," he said. "He thinks that by
frightening you he will be able to keep you from running away."

"Your majesty does not know him," whispered the youth, shuddering.
"He is the wickedest man in all the world. Nothing would please him
more than killing me, and he would have done it long since but for
two things. One is that I have made myself useful about his camp,
doing chores and the like, and the other is that were he to kill me
he knows that my father would never pay him."

"How much does your father owe him?"

"Five hundred marks, your majesty," replied Rudolph. "Two hundred of
this amount is the original debt, and the balance Yellow Franz has
added since he captured me, so that it is really ransom money. But
my father is a poor man, so that it will take a long time before he
can accumulate so large a sum.

"You would really like to go home again, Rudolph?"

"Oh, very much, your majesty, if I only dared." Barney was silent
for some time, thinking. Possibly he could effect his own escape
with the connivance of Rudolph, and at the same time free the boy.
The paltry ransom he could pay out of his own pocket and send to
Yellow Franz later, so that the youth need not fear the brigand's
revenge. It was worth thinking about, at any rate.

"How long do you imagine they will keep me, Rudolph?" he asked after
a time.

"Yellow Franz has already sent Herman to Lustadt with a message for
Prince Peter, telling him that you are being held for ransom, and
demanding the payment of a huge sum for your release. Day after
tomorrow or the next day he should return with Prince Peter's reply.

"If it is favorable, arrangements will be made to turn you over to
Prince Peter's agents, who will have to come to some distant meeting
place with the money. A week, perhaps, it will take, maybe longer."

It was the second day before Herman returned from Lustadt. He rode
in just at dark, his pony lathered from hard going.

Barney and the boy saw him coming, and the youth ran forward with
the others to learn the news that he had brought; but Yellow Franz
and his messenger withdrew to a hut which the brigand chief reserved
for his own use, nor would he permit any beside the messenger to
accompany him to hear the report.

For half an hour Barney sat alone waiting for word from Yellow Franz
that arrangements had been consummated for his release, and then out
of the darkness came Rudolph, wide-eyed and trembling.

"Oh, my king?" he whispered. "What shall we do? Peter has refused
to ransom you alive, but he has offered a great sum for unquestioned
proof of your death. Already he has caused a proclamation to be
issued stating that you have been killed by bandits after escaping
from Blentz, and ordering a period of national mourning. In three
weeks he is to be crowned king of Lutha."

"When do they intend terminating my existence?" queried Barney.

There was a smile upon his lips, for even now he could scarce
believe that in the twentieth century there could be any such
medieval plotting against a king's life, and yet, on second thought,
had he not ample proof of the lengths to which Peter of Blentz was
willing to go to obtain the crown of Lutha!

"I do not know, your majesty," replied Rudolph, "when they will do
it; but soon, doubtless, since the sooner it is done the sooner they
can collect their pay."

Further conversation was interrupted by the sound of footsteps
without, and an instant later Yellow Franz entered the squalid
apartment and the dim circle of light which flickered feebly from
the smoky lantern that hung suspended from the rafters.

He stopped just within the doorway and stood eyeing the American
with an ugly grin upon his vicious face. Then his eyes fell upon the
trembling Rudolph.

"Get out of here, you!" he growled. "I've got private business with
this king. And see that you don't come nosing round either, or I'll
slit that soft throat for you."

Rudolph slipped past the burly ruffian, barely dodging a brutal blow
aimed at him by the giant, and escaped into the darkness without.

"And now for you, my fine fellow," said the brigand, turning toward
Barney. "Peter says you ain't worth nothing to him - alive, but that
your dead body will fetch us a hundred thousand marks."

"Rather cheap for a king, isn't it?" was Barney's only comment.

"That's what Herman tells him," replied Yellow Franz. "But he's a
close one, Peter is, and so it was that or nothing."

"When are you going to pull off this little - er - ah - royal demise?"
asked Barney.

"If you mean when am I going to kill you," replied the bandit, "why,
there ain't no particular rush about it. I'm a tender-hearted chap,
I am. I never should have been in this business at all, but here I
be, and as there ain't nobody that can do a better job of the kind
than me, or do it so painlessly, why I just got to do it myself, and
that's all there is to it. But, as I says, there ain't no great
rush. If you want to pray, why, go ahead and pray. I'll wait for
you."

"I don't remember," said Barney, "when I have met so generous a
party as you, my friend. Your self-sacrificing magnanimity quite
overpowers me. It reminds me of another unloved Robin Hood whom I
once met. It was in front of Burket's coal-yard on Ella Street, back
in dear old Beatrice, at some unchristian hour of the night.

"After he had relieved me of a dollar and forty cents he remarked:
'I gotta good mind to kick yer slats in fer not havin' more of de
cush on yeh; but I'm feelin' so good about de last guy I stuck up
I'll let youse off dis time.'"

"I do not know what you are talking about," replied Yellow Franz;
"but if you want to pray you'd better hurry up about it."

He drew his pistol from its holster on the belt at his hips.

Now Barney Custer had no mind to give up the ghost without a
struggle; but just how he was to overcome the great beast who
confronted him with menacing pistol was, to say the least, not
precisely plain. He wished the man would come a little nearer where
he might have some chance to close with him before the fellow could
fire. To gain time the American assumed a prayerful attitude, but
kept one eye on the bandit.

Presently Yellow Franz showed indications of impatience. He fingered
the trigger of his weapon, and then slowly raised it on a line with
Barney's chest.

"Hadn't you better come closer?" asked the young man. "You might
miss at that distance, or just wound me."

Yellow Franz grinned.

"I don't miss," he said, and then: "You're certainly a game one. If
it wasn't for the hundred thousand marks, I'd be hanged if I'd kill
you."

"The chances are that you will be if you do," said Barney, "so
wouldn't you rather take one hundred and fifty thousand marks and
let me make my escape?"

Yellow Franz looked at the speaker a moment through narrowed lids.

"Where would you find any one willing to pay that amount for a crazy
king?" he asked.

"I have told you that I am not the king," said Barney. "I am an
American with a father who would gladly pay that amount on my safe
delivery to any American consul."

Yellow Franz shook his head and tapped his brow significantly.

"Even if you was what you are dreaming, it wouldn't pay me," he
said.

"I'll make it two hundred thousand," said Barney.

"No - it's a waste of time talking about it. It's worth more than
money to me to know that I'll always have this thing on Peter, and
that when he's king he won't dare bother me for fear I'll publish
the details of this little deal. Come, you must be through praying
by this time. I can't wait around here all night." Again Yellow
Franz raised his pistol toward Barney's heart.

Before the brigand could pull the trigger, or Barney hurl himself
upon his would-be assassin, there was a flash and a loud report from
the open window of the shack.

With a groan Yellow Franz crumpled to the dirt floor, and
simultaneously Barney was upon him and had wrested the pistol from
his hand; but the precaution was unnecessary for Yellow Franz would
never again press finger to trigger. He was dead even before Barney
reached his side.

In possession of the weapon, the American turned toward the window
from which had come the rescuing shot, and as he did so he saw the
boy, Rudolph, clambering over the sill, white-faced and trembling.
In his hand was a smoking carbine, and on his brow great beads of
cold sweat.

"God forgive me!" murmured the youth. "I have killed a man."

"You have killed a dangerous wild beast, Rudolph," said Barney, "and
both God and your fellow man will thank and reward you."

"I am glad that I killed him, though," went on the boy, "for he
would have killed you, my king, had I not done so. Gladly would I go
to the gallows to save my king."

"You are a brave lad, Rudolph," said Barney, "and if ever I get out
of the pretty pickle I'm in you'll be well rewarded for your loyalty
to Leopold of Lutha. After all," thought the young man, "being a
kind has its redeeming features, for if the boy had not thought me
his monarch he would never have risked the vengeance of the
bloodthirsty brigands in this attempt to save me."

"Hasten, your majesty," whispered the boy, tugging at the sleeve of
Barney's jacket. "There is no time to be lost. We must be far away
from here when the others discover that Yellow Franz has been
killed."

Barney stooped above the dead man, and removing his belt and
cartridges transferred them to his own person. Then blowing out the
lantern the two slipped out into the darkness of the night.

About the camp fire of the brigands the entire pack was congregated.
They were talking together in low voices, ever and anon glancing
expectantly toward the shack to which their chief had gone to
dispatch the king. It is not every day that a king is murdered, and
even these hardened cut-throats felt the spell of awe at the thought
of what they believed the sharp report they had heard from the shack
portended.

Keeping well to the far side of the clearing, Rudolph led Barney
around the group of men and safely into the wood below them. From
this point the boy followed the trail which Barney and his captors
had traversed two days previously, until he came to a diverging
ravine that led steeply up through the mountains upon their right
hand.

In the distance behind them they suddenly heard, faintly, the
shouting of men.

"They have discovered Yellow Franz," whispered the boy, shuddering.

"Then they'll be after us directly," said Barney.

"Yes, your majesty," replied Rudolph, "but in the darkness they will
not see that we have turned up this ravine, and so they will ride on
down the other. I have chosen this way because their horses cannot
follow us here, and thus we shall be under no great disadvantage. It
may be, however, that we shall have to hide in the mountains for a
while, since there will be no place of safety for us between here
and Lustadt until after the edge of their anger is dulled."

And such proved to be the case, for try as they would they found it
impossible to reach Lustadt without detection by the brigands who
patrolled every highway and byway from their rugged mountains to the
capital of Lutha.

For nearly three weeks Barney and the boy hid in caves or dense
underbrush by day, and by night sought some avenue which would lead
them past the vigilant sentries that patrolled the ways to freedom.

Often they were wet by rains, nor were they ever in the warm
sunlight for a sufficient length of time to become thoroughly dry
and comfortable. Of food they had little, and of the poorest
quality.

They dared not light a fire for warmth or cooking, and their light
was so miserable that, but for the boy's pitiful terror at the
thought of being recaptured by the bandits, Barney would long since
have made a break for Lustadt, depending upon their arms and
ammunition to carry them safely through were they discovered by
their enemies.

Rudolph had contracted a severe cold the first night, and now, it
having settled upon his lungs, he had developed a persistent and
aggravating cough that caused Barney not a little apprehension.
When, after nearly three weeks of suffering and privation, it became
clear that the boy's lungs were affected, the American decided to
take matters into his own hands and attempt to reach Lustadt and a
good doctor; but before he had an opportunity to put his plan into
execution the entire matter was removed from his jurisdiction.

It happened like this: After a particularly fatiguing and
uncomfortable night spent in attempting to elude the sentinels who
blocked their way from the mountains, daylight found them near a
little spring, and here they decided to rest for an hour before
resuming their way.

The little pool lay not far from a clump of heavy bushes which would
offer them excellent shelter, as it was Barney's intention to go
into hiding as soon as they had quenched their thirst at the spring.

Rudolph was coughing pitifully, his slender frame wracked by the
convulsion of each new attack. Barney had placed an arm about the
boy to support him, for the paroxysms always left him very weak.

The young man's heart went out to the poor boy, and pangs of regret
filled his mind as he realized that the child's pathetic condition
was the direct result of his self-sacrificing attempt to save his
king. Barney felt much like a murderer and a thief, and dreaded the
time when the boy should be brought to a realization of his mistake.

He had come to feel a warm affection for the loyal little lad, who
had suffered so uncomplainingly and whose every thought had been for
the safety and comfort of his king.

Today, thought Barney, I'll take this child through to Lustadt even
if every ragged brigand in Lutha lies between us and the capital;
but even as he spoke a sudden crashing of underbrush behind caused
him to wheel about, and there, not twenty paces from them, stood two
of Yellow Franz's cutthroats.

At sight of Barney and the lad they gave voice to a shout of
triumph, and raising their carbines fired point-blank at the two
fugitives.

But Barney had been equally as quick with his own weapon, and at the
moment that they fired he grasped Rudolph and dragged him backward
to a great boulder behind which their bodies might be protected from
the fire of their enemies.

Both the bullets of the bandits' first volley had been directed at
Barney, for it was upon his head that the great price rested. They
had missed him by a narrow margin, due, perhaps, to the fact that
the mounts of the brigands had been prancing in alarm at the
unexpected sight of the two strangers at the very moment that their
riders attempted to take aim and fire.

But now they had ridden back into the brush and dismounted, and
after hiding their ponies they came creeping out upon their bellies
upon opposite sides of Barney's shelter.

The American saw that it would be an easy thing for them to pick him
off if he remained where he was, and so with a word to Rudolph he
sprang up and the boy with him. Each delivered a quick shot at the
bandit nearest him, and then together they broke for the bushes in
which the brigand's mounts were hidden.

Two shots answered theirs. Rudolph, who was ahead of Barney,
stumbled and threw up his hands. He would have fallen had not the
American thrown a strong arm about him.

"I'm shot, your majesty," murmured the boy, his head dropping
against Barney's breast.

With the lad grasped close to him, the young man turned at the edge
of the brush to meet the charge of the two ruffians. The wounding of
the youth had delayed them just enough to preclude their making this
temporary refuge in safety.

As Barney turned both the men fired simultaneously, and both missed.
The American raised his revolver, and with the flash of it the
foremost brigand came to a sudden stop. An expression of
bewilderment crossed his features. He extended his arms straight
before him, the revolver slipped from his grasp, and then like a
dying top he pivoted once drunkenly and collapsed upon the turf.

At the instant of his fall his companion and the American fired
point-blank at one another.

Barney felt a burning sensation in his shoulder, but it was
forgotten for the moment in the relief that came to him as he saw
the second rascal sprawl headlong upon his face. Then he turned his
attention to the limp little figure that hung across his left arm.

Gently Barney laid the boy upon the sward, and fetching water from
the pool bathed his face and forced a few drops between the white
lips. The cooling draft revived the wounded child, but brought on a
paroxysm of coughing. When this had subsided Rudolph raised his eyes
to those of the man bending above him.

"Thank God, your majesty is unharmed," he whispered. "Now I can die
in peace."

The white lids drooped lower, and with a tired sigh the boy lay
quiet. Tears came to the young man's eyes as he let the limp body
gently to the ground.

"Brave little heart," he murmured, "you gave up your life in the
service of your king as truly as though you had not been all
mistaken in the object of your veneration, and if it lies within the
power of Barney Custer you shall not have died in vain."




VII

THE REAL LEOPOLD

Two hours later a horseman pushed his way between tumbled and
tangled briers along the bottom of a deep ravine.

He was hatless, and his stained and ragged khaki betokened much
exposure to the elements and hard and continued usage. At his
saddle-bow a carbine swung in its boot, and upon either hip was
strapped a long revolver. Ammunition in plenty filled the cross
belts that he had looped about his shoulders.

Grim and warlike as were his trappings, no less grim was the set of
his strong jaw or the glint of his gray eyes, nor did the patch of
brown stain that had soaked through the left shoulder of his jacket
tend to lessen the martial atmosphere which surrounded him.
Fortunate it was for the brigands of the late Yellow Franz that none
of them chanced in the path of Barney Custer that day.

For nearly two hours the man had ridden downward out of the high
hills in search of a dwelling at which he might ask the way to Tann;
but as yet he had passed but a single house, and that a long
untenanted ruin. He was wondering what had become of all the
inhabitants of Lutha when his horse came to a sudden halt before an
obstacle which entirely blocked the narrow trail at the bottom of
the ravine.

As the horseman's eyes fell upon the thing they went wide in
astonishment, for it was no less than the charred remnants of the
once beautiful gray roadster that had brought him into this
twentieth century land of medieval adventure and intrigue. Barney
saw that the machine had been lifted from where it had fallen across
the horse of the Princess von der Tann, for the animal's decaying
carcass now lay entirely clear of it; but why this should have been
done, or by whom, the young man could not imagine.

A glance aloft showed him the road far above him, from which he, the
horse and the roadster had catapulted; and with the sight of it
there flashed to his mind the fair face of the young girl in whose
service the thing had happened. Barney wondered if Joseph had been
successful in returning her to Tann, and he wondered, too, if she
mourned for the man she had thought king - if she would be very angry
should she ever learn the truth.

Then there came to the American's mind the figure of the shopkeeper
of Tafelberg, and the fellow's evident loyalty to the mad king he
had never seen. Here was one who might aid him, thought Barney. He
would have the will, at least, and with the thought the young man
turned his pony's head diagonally up the steep ravine side.

It was a tough and dangerous struggle to the road above, but at last
by dint of strenuous efforts on the part of the sturdy little beast
the two finally scrambled over the edge of the road and stood once
more upon level footing.

After breathing his mount for a few minutes Barney swung himself
into the saddle again and set off toward Tafelberg. He met no one
upon the road, nor within the outskirts of the village, and so he
came to the door of the shop he sought without attracting attention.

Swinging to the ground he tied the pony to one of the supporting
columns of the porch-roof and a moment later had stepped within the
shop.

From a back room the shopkeeper presently emerged, and when he saw
who it was that stood before him his eyes went wide in
consternation.

"In the name of all the saints, your majesty," cried the old fellow,
"what has happened? How comes it that you are out of the hospital,
and travel-stained as though from a long, hard ride? I cannot
understand it, sire."

"Hospital?" queried the young man. "What do you mean, my good
fellow? I have been in no hospital."

"You were there only last evening when I inquired after you of the
doctor," insisted the shopkeeper, "nor did any there yet suspect
your true identity."

"Last evening I was hiding far up in the mountains from Yellow


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Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 5 of 22)