Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
A bitter look came over the man's face. "He said that things had changed since the civil war, that he was fighting for a just cause, and that he would permit no killing. I wanted to believe. But now ..." His face hardened. "We may have had the same mother, but we are brothers no longer."
"Don't talk any more," Frank said as Chet came up with an old blanket he had found to cover the wounded man. "Just take it easy, and help will be here in a little while." Frank stood up, and looked over to where Alma was tending Aleko. The muscular young Greek was sitting with his back against a wall, fully awake and alert.
Frank surveyed him a moment. "How are you making out?"
Aleko managed a faint grin. "My head—it hurts very bad. But I will be all right. I — we owe you much."
Frank waved a hand. "Hey, we all did our bit. You, too, for that matter. But we still have a lot to do. Peter and Alma, you had better stay here with Nicholas and Aleko. Chet, let's get moving."
"First thing," Frank continued, "we find a phone and let Spiros Stamos know what's happened—that we've found Peter, and that Kaliotis needs a doctor. Then We try to make radio contact with Joe and the others up north."
He looked grim. "With Theo on the loose, we're likely to find a hot time on the border— all too soon."
JOE LAY FROZEN in the open, thinking that if there was anything worse than being shot at, it was not knowing where the shots were coming from. He waited to see what would happen next. If people were sniping at them, he and Clea couldn't try anything until they showed themselves.
From the cover of a gnarled and stunted tree trunk thirty feet away, a boy stepped forward. The kid couldn't have been more than thirteen or fourteen. He wore a ragged T-shirt, old jeans belted with a piece of rope, and sandals on his feet. He was carrying a long piece of rawhide. He glared at the two strangers.
Clea spoke to Joe in a whisper, never taking her eyes off the boy. "He is a shepherd, and he shot at you with that sling he is holding."
As she spoke, the boy pulled a smooth stone a bit larger than a marble from a pouch hanging from his rope belt and fitted it into the sling. He addressed them in Greek, sounding angry to Joe. Clea replied, and there was a short conversation between the two. Joe heard a familiar word—Amerikanos — Greek for American.
The boys eyes widened. "Amerikanos?" he echoed softly, dropping the stone back into the pouch and letting the sling fall. He was transformed, now carrying on with a stream of friendly chatter.
"He is called Giannis," Clea translated. "He says that border guards have been coming from Yugoslavia and raiding his flock, taking his sheep for food. He has been making patrols lately and moves his flock frequently."
There was another interval of talk between Clea and Giannis in Greek, and Clea turned to Joe in some excitement. "He knows the cabin we are looking for! It is no more than a fifteen minute walk from this spot."
Clea resumed her talk with the shepherd, who spoke for a longer time, with Clea listening and nodding her head in agreement. She explained to Joe: "It will not be hard to find — it is just over that hill, there." She pointed to a gentle slope about half a mile away. "But he warns us that we must be very careful and watch for the border patrols. He says the guards are the kind who shoot first and ask questions later, if at all."
Joe smiled at the boy, saying to Clea, "Be sure to thank him for me."
Clea spoke to Giannis, and the boy looked down shyly, then stepped closer to Joe, saying something directly to him for the first time. Joe looked questioningly at Clea, who tried to hide a grin.
"Giannis said that, since you are from America, perhaps you know his uncle George, who lives in America in a town called Chicago."
Joe looked at the shepherd, who stared at him hopefully, and shook his head.
"Uncle George drives a taxicab," Clea added.
"Tell him I'm sorry, but I've never met Uncle George," Joe said, keeping his face serious as he did so. "But if I ever do run into him, I will tell him that his nephew Giannis was very helpful to me."
When Clea relayed this speech, Giannis glowed with pride. Opening their packs, they took out food and offered some to Giannis. The young shepherd hesitated, and then took what was offered, wolfing it down as if he hadn't eaten in days. Joe and Clea finished their meal, thanked the boy once more, and headed off toward the last hill and the cabin beyond.
As they hiked, Joe looked back once more at Giannis, who stood watching them. "He seems kind of young to be out here by himself."
"He is not so young that he cannot help his family make their living," Clea answered. "People in the mountains are very poor. They can't afford to be children for very long."
They climbed the hill that Giannis had pointed out to them and began to descend the far side. Partway down, they caught sight of a small tumbledown hut standing by itself near the foot of the hill. Joe stared at it. "Calling that a cabin gives it the benefit of the doubt. If you ask me, I'd call it a shack."
The place seemed to be deserted. They waited for a few minutes; there was no sign of activity.
Joe slipped out of his pack and handed it to Clea. "I'm going down to check it out. You stay here." He scrambled down the slope till he reached the cabin. He peered in through a hole in the wall, then came to a crude door. It swung open with a loud creak.
Inside the dim light was alive with dust motes. A very old mattress lay along one wall and a three-legged table was on its side nearby. Otherwise the room was empty.
Joe climbed back up to Clea and squatted down near her. "All clear. We're the first to arrive, and I think we should stay up here, where we have a view of anyone coming. Let's get comfortable — we might be a while."
They found good cover and settled in to wait. Joe was half-asleep in the late-afternoon sun when Clea poked him with her foot. "I think someone is coming."
Joe stared where Clea was pointing. A man was indeed heading toward the cabin from the north. He was plainly straining, pushing on despite the fatigue that made his stride a little wobbly. From time to time he paused to look behind him.
As the man neared the cabin, Joe and Clea began to pick their way toward him. They walked through a patch of gravel, and the man spun to face them.
Clearly, they weren't what he was expecting. He tried speaking to them, first in a language that neither Joe nor Clea knew, then in Greek.
Joe now took a few steps toward the man, who was obviously on his last legs. The agent hadn't shaved in days. His eyes were red rimmed and glazed; only willpower was keeping him on his feet. He took another quick glance back in the direction from which he'd come.
Finally Joe decided that he had to be their contact. "It's all right. You must be Atlas. We're, uh, friends of Mr. Prynne — I think you know him as Ajax — anyway, he couldn't be here himself because of an accident, and— well, it's a long story. So here we are instead, okay?"
The man stared and shook his head slowly. "I can't believe it. You're just a couple of kids."
Joe straightened up and said, "Well, I'm seventeen, and so's Clea here, if that's what you mean. Sorry, I tried to get older, but this is the best I could do."
The man squatted down, staring up at Joe and Clea, raking his hair back with his fingers. "You two have any weapons?"
"Afraid not," Joe answered. "Sorry."
"You wouldn't, by any chance, have something to eat and drink? It's been quite a while since I had any food."
Joe stripped off his pack and found him some bread and cheese. The man tore at the bread and stuffed hunks of cheese into his mouth. Clea wordlessly gave him her canteen, and he took several long swallows.
"Can't tell you how much I needed that," he said once the little meal was done. "Wish I had time for an after-dinner nap, but we'd better get moving. We're going to have company any minute now. We are on the Greek side of the border, aren't we?"
"Yes, you are in Greece," Clea said. "The line is just north of that cabin."
The man slowly got to his feet and stretched. "We'd better head out of here anyway. With what I'm carrying, the people on my tail aren't about to let a little thing like a national border get in their way. You two kids actually work for ... I mean, I knew they'd been having some recruiting problems, but ... "
Joe shrugged back into his pack. "We're not exactly Network operatives, if that's what you're getting at. We sort of fell into this job. Things haven't been going according to plan, but it doesn't sound like we have time for a long story just now. Shall we get going?"
"Lead on. By the way, what do I call you two?"
"She's Clea and I'm Joe. Joe Hardy."
"Pleased to meet you. I wish it had been under different circumstances." Clea took the lead as they began to retrace their steps back toward the south. As they climbed the hill, agent Atlas kept looking behind them, as he strained to keep up the pace. Joe observed Atlas's concern. "Who are you expecting to follow us?"
"There was a Yugoslav patrol about ten miles back. I managed to give them the slip and must have built up a little lead. But I know they're back there somewhere.
Joe peered into the distance, but saw no signs of movement. They returned to their hurried climb. As they neared the top, Atlas no longer kept glancing back. He seemed to be rapidly running out of energy: his breathing had become more labored, and he was limping slightly as if there were a rock in one of his shoes.
"You okay?" Joe asked him.
"Don't bother worrying about me. How far do we have to go, and do you have any friends waiting when we get there?"
"It's between an hour and a half and two hours, and there's at least a few friends therewith guns. Maybe more of them by now."
"Very good," said Atlas. "Okay, Joe, you and Clea don't have to worry about me. I'll do what I have to, to get back home. I'd just feel better if we had a weapon, but — "
Crack! The unmistakable sound of a high-powered rifle rang out, and a puff of dust and dirt spouted a few feet to Joe's right side.
"There they are," said Atlas, pointing north. Joe quickly counted about a dozen men in tan uniforms, all armed, jogging down the slope of the next hill over, perhaps three hundred yards behind them. More shots were fired, and a ricochet whined off a nearby rock.
The sight of the pursuers seemed to destroy Atlas's energy. His shoulders slumped, and he reeled as if someone had hit him.
"Let's go!" snapped Joe. "Let's stay about ten yards apart and take advantage of all the cover you can find—at least till we're over the crest of the hill. Move!"
As they clambered up their hill, Joe risked another look back. The border guards had formed a ragged line, picking up speed as they came. They had their target in sight, and they'd guessed right that the target couldn't shoot back. A few of them had even broken into a full run.
The hunters were closing in rapidly—and there wasn't a thing that Joe, Clea, or Atlas could do to stop them.
A CAR SPED north along the same road that Joe, Prynne, Clea, and the others had taken earlier. At the wheel was Spiros Stamos, with Frank Hardy next to him, the multiband radio in his lap. In the backseat were the Gray Man and Chet Morton.
After Frank and Chet had left the cellar where they'd been held captive, things had come together in a hurry. Medical attention had been provided for Nicholas Kaliotis and for Aleko, both of whom would recover.
In the case of Kaliotis, there were legal matters to be dealt with once he left the hospital, and he was in police custody. But he was willing, even eager, to help bring Theo and his thugs to justice.
Earlier, when Frank had gotten in the car, he exclaimed, "This is the big rescue force you talked about? The four of us? What's the deal here, is the Network running on a supertight budget or something?"
The Gray Man had replied, "Take it easy, Frank. The Greek military can't get involved in this, and neither can any other official arm of the Greek government, unless we want serious diplomatic problems. It can't seem that they took any official interest in this matter at all. And there is a larger party, which will come after us. We're just the vanguard, so to speak."
Now they were twisting and turning along the mountain roads, carefully taking the switchbacks and hairpins. Frank fiddled with the radio, but he didn't hear anything except static. He was feeling edgy and tried not to let it show. There hadn't been any information about Joe and the others for hours.
Abruptly, Stamos braked the car to a stop and backed it up. Half-hidden in a cleft between some rocks stood an all-terrain vehicle.
"That must be the ATV Prynne was driving this morning," he said.
They pulled in next to the truck and behind it found a group of men, tied up. The bound men wouldn't speak, but the Gray Man noticed a piece of paper pinned on one guy's shirt. He reached down and pulled it loose.
"Somebody's left a note. 'To whom it may concern,' " the Gray Man read. " 'We had to borrow a car from these guys after they shot up our truck. We're on our way north. See you soon—we hope. Joe.' "
After Spiro Stamos radioed in to arrange for the prisoners to be picked up, they headed back out on the road. Frank took control of the radio, switching it to the proper frequency. Before he had a chance to try a transmission, the voice of Phil Cohen crackled out of the speaker. Eagerly, Frank grabbed the microphone.
"Phil! This is Frank, Phil! Do you read me? Do you read me? Over."
Phil's response was audible through a slight filter of static and interference. "Affirmative, Frank, you're coming through pretty well. Good to hear a friendly voice over this thing!"
"What's happening with you up there? We're on our way to join you. Over."
"It's kind of involved, so I'll try to keep it simple. We drove the Mercedes we took from that bunch of heavies, but we decided to turn off from the main route and take a side road that goes right by this old Turkish fort. Prynne got hurt when we took the car, by the way — messed up his leg, so he can't walk."