There was quite a shock as the overloaded parachute lowered Big Eric and the assistant pilot to a cornfield. Big Eric dashed madly across corn rows to learn whether his daughter had landed safely.
He found Edna giving the pilot a ravishing smile of thanks—a smile the airman undoubtedly would remember the rest of his life.
"C'mon!" shouted Big Eric. "That slick-haired skunk is getting away from us!"
He charged to the highway. But he was too late. The shiny-haired, evil-faced man who had set off the explosion was already out of sight in his commandeered car.
Big Eric glanced at Edna and said grimly: "I’d bet a million that he was a tool of the Gray Spider!"
They hurried to a farmhouse telephone, and put out an alarm for the would-be murderer. It was of no avail, however. The man had vanished.
From the nearest town, Big Eric and Edna caught a train for New York City.
"I'm not going to breathe easy until we put ourselves in the hands of Doc Savage," Big Eric said uneasily, as he listened to the click of the speeding train wheels.
Chapter II. CULT OF THE MOCCASIN
ALIGHTING in the vast Grand Central Station in midtown New York City, Big Eric and Edna hurried to a telephone.
"I'm going to call Ham," Big Eric explained. He looked up "Ham's" number, then lifted the receiver.
He did not pay particular attention to a man who hobbled near by on a pair of crutches. The fellow had one arm in a sling. His face was swathed in bandages. His hair projected a tousled mass from the gauze swathing. It was curly and yellow.
Big Eric replaced the receiver.
"Ham was not at his home," he told Edna, "but he left an address where I can find him."
The two travelers from Louisiana quitted the station and engaged a taxi.
They failed to note that the bandage-swathed man had hobbled out after them on his crutches. The fellow showed remarkable agility.
Over to Fifth Avenue ran Big Eric's cab. It wheeled south. The hour was near dusk. Myriads of lighted windows in the skyscrapers made them like stacks of flashing jewels.
The bandaged man had taken another cab. In the obscurity of the machine, he was keeping a close watch on Big Eric's vehicle. At the same time he fingered his bandages as though their presence was irksome.
Big Eric Danielsen and his daughter alighted before a great building that ran upward like a white slab for nearly a hundred stories. It was one of the largest and most sumptuous in New York.
They rode in an elevator to the eighty-sixth floor. Big Eric touched the bell button beside a door which was severely plain, and devoid of all lettering.
The door opened, framing a man.
"Ham!" boomed Big Eric. "By golly, I’m glad to see you!"
Ham was a slender, quick-moving man. His garments were of the very latest cut and the most expensive fabrics. He was sartorial perfection.
In one well-groomed hand, Ham carried a harmless-looking black cane—the sword cane which Big Eric had mentioned. Ham was seldom seen without this necessary item of his dress.
Big Eric and Ham began pumping hands and giving each other terrific thumps on the back.
"You fuzzy-eared pirate!" Ham chuckled.
"You skinny ambulance chaser!" rumbled Big Eric.
The lumber king turned proudly to Edna. "This, Ham, is my reward for getting married instead of bouncing around over the world, tumbling into messes and out, as you have done. My daughter!"
"I find it hard to believe"—Ham smiled gallantly—"that such a homely father could have a daughter so entrancingly beautiful."
After a few more ribald pleasantries passed between the old friends, Big Eric glanced about the office curiously. The place was furnished with great luxury. A large safe stood at one side. A massive and exquisitely inlaid table was near the large windows. A door on the other side of the room was closed.
"This your office, Ham?" the lumberman inquired.
Ham shook his head. "No. This is the New York headquarters of Doc Savage."
Big Eric glanced about anxiously. "I hope we can meet Doc Savage soon. We certainly need his aid."
At this, Ham's well-barbered face showed regret. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
"Eh?" Big Eric's ruddy features paled. "What d'you mean?"
"I cannot find Doc Savage," replied Ham soberly.
A SHOCKED silence filled the room for a moment.
"Golly!" gasped Big Eric. "You don't mean the Gray Spider heard I was coming to Doc Savage, and killed Savage to keep him from helping me?"
Ham waved the suggestion away with his sword cane.
"Not at all! It is something entirely different. You recall that I told you a great deal of Doc Savage. Especially did I dwell upon the fabulous fund of knowledge he possesses. I mentioned great discoveries he has made in the fields of chemistry, electricity, surgery, and so on. In your own field, you know of the marvelous quick-growing timber tree he perfected."
"I certainly do!" affirmed the lumber king. "In my opinion that is the outstanding piece of plant wizardry of all time!"
"What I am getting around to is this," continued Ham. "These marvelous discoveries are made by Doc Savage during periods when he drops from sight. He simply vanishes. Nobody knows where he goes. Nobody can get in touch with him. It is as though he had dropped from the earth."
"Then our trip to New York is for nothing!" Edna Danielsen said sharply. "Your Doc Savage is supposed to devote his services to mankind, yet he goes off some place where he cannot be found when he is needed the most!"
Edna was disappointed at not finding Doc Savage here, and with an unreasonableness not uncommon to the fair sex, was inclined to blame Doc for not being there.
"Young lady," Ham said severely, "you do not realize that Doc Savage's benefactions to humanity extend beyond helping every Tom, Dick, and Harry, or Mary, Jane, and Anne out of their private troubles. Doc Savage has a great laboratory at some remote spot in the world, a laboratory that is unquestionably the finest in existence. That is my opinion, although even I, one of his five best friends, am not sure. No doubt he has retired there, and when he appears, he will be bearing some new contribution which will save thousands of lives.
"That contribution may be a new method of curing some disease. It may be anything. But it will be of vastly more importance than any personal misfortune you or anybody else might have met in the meantime!"
Ham had spoken with a passion to which he was seldom moved. At his words, the pretty young woman looked very angry, then thoughtful, and, finally, contrite.
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
Ham bowed an apology. "Pardon my bluntness, if you will. I realize you were not fully aware of the amazing character of Doc Savage."
Ham now conducted Big Eric and Edna through the rest of Doc Savage's skyscraper aлrie.
In an adjoining room was one of the most complete scientific libraries to be found. Thousands of volumes lined the walls and filled massive floor cases.
Next came the laboratory, a very large room, replete with benches of apparatus and case after case of rare chemicals and metals. Efficient electric furnaces, mixing machines, exhausting machines, and equipment of which no one but Doc Savage knew the use, were set on permanent bases here and there.
"The second most complete laboratory in existence," said Ham proudly. "The most complete is undoubtedly the one which nobody but Doc has ever seen."