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Chapter Sixteen
The Jaws Of Death

WENTWORTH plunged downward at terrific speed, falling free, the wings of no more value than a tangled parachute. He spread his legs so that the fin between them straightened, the rudder whipped back into position. He was falling headfirst now and it was easy to pull the wings about into flying station.

He twisted the ailerons, kicked the rudder and immediately felt the lift of the wings. He shot forward on a level with the momentum of his plunge, peered about and a shout of anger and hate rang out. The Bat Man was diving headfirst toward the Boeing and, even as Wentworth shouted, the giant plane faltered, slid off on one wing and nosed down. It took only a glance to realize that the Bat Man's rifle had penetrated the bullet-proof glass and that the Marine pilot and June Calvert were plunging to their deaths!

Instinctively, as Wentworth saw what had happened, he tilted back his ailerons and zoomed up toward the Bat Man. It was not until then that the man saw Wentworth, flying on wings so like his own. When he did, he staggered uncertainly for a moment, his flying speed falling off. Instantly, he overcame his surprise and dived to gather momentum.

It was only then that Wentworth realized the difficulty of the thing he had undertaken. He had intended the wings to enable him to penetrate the Bat's hiding place, now suddenly, he found himself forced to fight in a field in which his opponent was easily the master. He was plunged instantly into a life and death struggle!

Wentworth realized these things when he prolonged his zoom too long in an effort to gain altitude on the Bat Man. He lost flying speed, whip-stalled and found himself plunging for the earth at a furious pace. Ailerons and rudder kicked him out of it, but he found the Bat Man sweeping toward him nose-on. The rifle which Wentworth now saw was strapped to the top of the wing and was aligned with the man's body. It spat flame and a bullet whipped past within inches of his head.

Wentworth's face was grimly set. If the Bat Man expected any armament at all, he would naturally conceive it to be of the same type as his own. Actually, Wentworth's automatics were pointed straight out to each side, slung in holsters through whose tip they could fire as readily as if held freely in the hands. As Wentworth wheeled out of the line of fire, he pointed a wingtip toward the Bat Man and squeezed the trigger. The recoil kicked the wing upward slightly and Wentworth had to twist ailerons to straighten out his curious craft. The bullet went wide.

Wentworth completed a circle but found the Bat Man had the speed on him, from his dive. His enemy shot about in an almost vertical bank which Wentworth would have believed impossible and the rifle was leveled once more. A bullet from the Bat Man's rifle struck the wing and tugged at Wentworth's sleeve. A second shot, close on its heels, struck the duralumin brace and whined off into space.

Wentworth dived. It was the only thing he could do. The Bat Man followed and the Spider saw that he had one advantage—speed of descent. In a vertical plunge, of course, both would drop at the same pace, but at a glide, Wentworth's greater weight, his higher ratio of weight to wing spread gave him the advantage. But he could not out-fly bullets. . . .

 

Lead cracked over his head viciously. Wentworth kicked the rudder and dodged. He repeated that while bullets sang and whined about him. The wing was struck again. Wentworth twisted his head about and saw the Bat Man was gaining on him slightly because of his dodging. As he looked, the squealing, rasping signal that was a call to the bats rang out. Good lord, was the man summoning the vampires to his assistance?

Wentworth whipped about and tried once more to down the man with automatic shots, but his lack of lateral control handicapped him badly. He dared not empty his guns with such poor assurance of success and he was forced once more to turn and run. The Spider run from an enemy! It was incredible, but it was so. The man had greater skill.

They were dangerously close to earth now. No more than a thousand feet. Wentworth continued to dodge while he searched the earth with eager eyes. Over to his right was the deep slit of a canyon. Beneath him, all was dense woods. There was no spot to mark where the Boeing had crashed. Desperately, Wentworth searched the earth for some spot in which to land. There was none.

Abruptly, Wentworth remembered the reason for his wings. They had been for the purpose of entering the secret hiding place of the Bat Man, of invading the canyon cave in which, Wentworth deduced, he had made his headquarters. There was a canyon, and the attack upon him had been begun near it. He would have to chance a dive into its tricky and turbulent wind currents.

With his mind made up, Wentworth slanted directly for the darkened mouth of the canyon. Behind him, the Bat Man screamed again and it seemed to Wentworth that it was more than a signal. The sound held a touch of fright, perhaps of anger. The Bat pressed him more closely, dived steeply to intercept his approach to the cliffs. Wentworth smiled thinly. He had guessed right then. The hiding place was there! He would enter that canyon or die in the attempt.

The Bat pressed closer, closer, his rifle barking again and again. Wentworth watched him come with worried, angry eyes. There was death for one of them here on the lip of the cliffs, or in that narrow bit of air that led downward into the throat of the canyon itself. In that confined space, there could be little dodging, little hope of escape. Bullets would fly. . . .

On the point of darting downward into the canyon, Wentworth whipped upward into a zoom almost head on toward the Bat Man. He twisted the ailerons and side-slipped toward the valley below. As he slipped, holding his wings steadily vertical so that he plunged at terrific force toward the stony death below, he began to shoot. For the first time, now, in that perilous position, he had the stability he needed for accuracy. His first shot caught the right wing of the Bat Man. His second plucked at the man's clothing. But in his steady dive, Wentworth exposed himself to the fire of his enemy's rifle and the bullets whipped closer, closer. . . .

A knife of fire slit down Wentworth's right arm and his hand went utterly numb and useless. He knew that one of the bullets had touched him at last. It was a superficial wound, but it might well mean death! The crippling of that arm loosened one of the ailerons to flap as it would. It halved his armament . . . !

 

A wild challenging shout rang from the Spider's lips. Its echo battered at him from both walls of the canyon, but it seemed to him that there was another shriller voice shouting, too. He fought grimly to hold on with his numb hand to the handle of the aileron. He did not seek to use it, merely to hold it stationary while with his other hand and the rudder he maneuvered his other wing uppermost. As the rudder turned him, first, head-down, then over again, he caught a glimpse of a black cave's mouth far below and, on the edge before it, several figures stood with arms uplifted. By the gods, if that Bat Man did not kill the Spider in the air, then the man's Indians would slaughter him when he landed!

Bitterly, Wentworth completed his whirl, thrust his gun-hand upward. If he died, he at least would not die alone!

His hands moved, his feet kicked the rudder. Before his eyes whirled the black opening of the cave he had seen and the gesturing figures. They were going to kill him, were they? He tried to kick a wing about so that he could shoot, but he forgot to bank or his hands failed on the ailerons when he did it. He skated sideways, twisting his head about to see the death that presently would strike into him.

In God's name, who was this who held out waiting arms to him? That face! Nita! Good God, Nita! He felt that he was still skidding sideways toward that lovely face that floated before his eyes. He saw men leap toward him, then . . . nothing!

Impossible to tell whether he was unconscious for an hour or a second, but the crooning of Nita's voice drifted away and returned to him in waves of sound. He pushed his eyes open, looked up into Nita's face. He struggled up. . . .

"The Bat Man! The Bat Man!" he cried. "Where is he?"

"Dead, darling," Nita told him. "You shot him down out in the canyon there, before you sideslipped into a landing here on the ledge."

Wentworth moved his arms stiffly and found a biting pain in the right one, found the left unencumbered by the wing. He looked about him. June Calvert was standing near, with Jackson's arm about her. Fred Stoking and Ram Singh smiled at him. The Marine lieutenant. . . .

"Mr. Carlisle," Wentworth said weakly, "how in the hell do you happen to be still alive?"

The Marine grinned. "I faked out-of-control and landed in the canyon valley. There's a rope ladder up here. Had quite a tussle with some of those vampire bats up there. They came out when that guy screamed up here in the air, but they couldn't see in the daylight very well and we got the best of them."

Wentworth sank back on the hard rock of the ledge gratefully. "Well, Earl Westfall will never be electrocuted then."

Nita smiled at him. "How did you know the Bat Man was Westfall? We found out when we came here that he wasn't the fat man he seemed at all. He had a rubber suit that he blew up. It made him look huge. And that Bat Man face of his—it was a mask."

Wentworth looked about, found June Calvert's eyes. "You ought to know how I found out, how I learned where the headquarters was."

 

June Calvert shook her head. "I haven't the faintest idea," she said happily, "but I don't see that it matters much as long as you did." She looked up into Jackson's wide, grinning face.

"Really," Wentworth complained, "won't somebody inquire how the great Wentworth learned the secret."

Nita laughed and brushed his forehead with her lips. "Tell me, darling," she whispered. "I'll always want to know."

"The bat musk secret," Wentworth said. "None of the Indians was ever attacked by the bats and there had to be a reason. It was because they smelled like bats."

They were interested now, all of them. Fred Stoking looked at Nita with wistful, but hopeless, eyes.

"It wasn't possible for the Bat Man—or Westfall—" Wentworth went on, "to get enough bat glands to make the odor, so he had to make it artificially. The bat musk was strangely like some perfume I had run across. Basically, of course. I identified the perfume— Chatou's Oriental—and found out where large shipments of it had been made. It came to Hoot-Owl Center, and would you believe it? Westfall actually had it addressed to his stable manager! But I had been suspicious of Westfall for some time. I found out from some of my newspaper clippings that he had recently been to a sanitarium for drug addicts and I looked up his weight there. It's exactly ninety pounds."

Wentworth pushed himself to his feet. His side ached from a flesh wound and his right arm hung useless at his side, but there was a smile on his face. He put his good arm about Nita's shoulders.

"Darling," he said, "I think that—when I get out of the hospital— I shall go on a real bat."

Nita shuddered, laughed up at him. "I'm willing, but for heaven's sakes, let's call it something . . . something else than . . . a bat!"

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Framed