The man approaching them from the hallway wore glasses, a red flannel shirt, and blue jeans with semi-casual shoes. He was a balding man in his late 40s with a big, round chin. He smiled when he first saw everyone, but quickly turned with a start at the sight of the masked Mountain Man. "Who--who are you?" he asked a moment later as he began to collect himself.
The man soon identified himself as Morton Helms ("You can call me Mort"), Township Clerk. "I'm afraid you boys caught us on a bad week, is all," he said in regards to how deserted the town seemed to be. "Fishing's been bad, but when it picks up people will start coming around again. Maybe you could try coming back in a week or two..."
The Mountain Man had waited to see if one of the others would speak up, but then took the lead. "Mort, we were interested in doing a little hunting once the season starts again. Are there any properties around here that we should definitely steer clear of? I don't want any crazy trapper or guy in the woods shooting our heads off for wandering onto his land, ya know?"
Mort's face sobered and he seemed to be trying to read everyone's intentions. Then his mask of politeness came back and he said as he beamed a big smile, "I don't think you'll find any good hunting in these parts either. But I would avoid going east out of town if I were you. There's some...well, grumpy old men living out that way who might not like you wandering through their property."
That seemed the best lead they had, so they left Town Hall. Sewer Rat opted to skulk behind them on foot, leaving Dice Morgan to drive his jalopy, with Gandor the Great riding shotgun. The Daoist rode in the passenger seat beside the Mountain man.
Dice Morgan scowled as they headed back out of town. "Dat old coot knew more'n he was tellin' us. Mebbe’ we shoulda’ leaned on him a lil' bit. Just so's we knew exactly what we're gettin' into." He cracked his large knuckles. "Ah well. Least we'll get the chance to crack some heads." He looked around at the company he was keeping and quickly added, "Y'know, fer’ Uncle Sam an' all."
After two miles of driving on a dirt road running between increasingly spread out farms and seeing no sign of a temple, everyone began to think they'd been had by the township clerk. Dice and Gandor, both particularly suspicious, stopped their car first. Everyone got out and conferred in the middle of nowhere and agreed that Mort knew more than he let on and that he needed a second talking to.
When their mini-caravan was almost back to the Town Hall, they found the road ahead blocked by an old, beat-up pickup truck parked sideways across the road. Behind it stood five gritty-looking farmhands in overalls and holding hunting rifles. They seemed to be expecting the heroes.
Dice Morgan and the Mountain Man stopped their vehicles and rolled down their windows. Then they could hear one of the armed men yell out, "You can't come this way! Might as well head back where you were going!"
Dice growled, getting a bit riled at the sight of the weapons. "You boys seem so all-fired insistent,” he shouted back, “maybe ya’ oughtta’ tell us just what you think it is we were headed towards!"
Sitting in his truck behind the Sewer Rat's vehicle, The Mountain Man reached into his heavy pack on the floor of his truck and got a grip on the haft of his hatchet, but kept it out of sight for the moment.
The Daoist opened the passenger door of the truck a tiny bit, preparing to charge at the gunmen if things came to blows.
Dice called from the window, "So, you boys got something you wanna tell us?" He quietly loosened his fighting knife in its sheath under his coat.
“We don't need strangers in Highland," the speaker continued angrily from about 20 ft. ahead of Dice’s parked car. "Unless you know somebody in town who can vouch for you, you're about to lose your radiator. And then we aim for the windshield! Hoist 'em up, boys!" the leader commanded as the other four lifted their rifles to their shoulders and took aim.
"I've never been so unpopular before putting on a show," Gandor the Great quipped to Dice. "I see you're fondling a weapon there. Shall we rush them and see what a little brawling can do?"
The Mountain Man got out of his truck with his pack over his shoulder, "We know Milo Haroldson. He said we should look him up if we came up here." The Mountain Man was using the name just so he could cover some of the distance to the men. If he could get into fighting range he planned to bring his hatchet to bear on the closest man.
The Daoist slid out of the truck and followed a few paces behind the Mountain Man. He hoped violence could be avoided, but should events prove otherwise he was prepared to transform into a mountain lion. He had encountered the impressive beast in the wilds of Montana several months prior and thought it would make a formidable attacker.
Sewer Rat, in his outfit, lurked nearby. He had spotted the ambushers and followed them out here. Fortunately, it was easy enough to notice when a militia started mobilizing. "Anywhere there's men with guns, there's trouble," he had said quietly as he followed them through the woods. He did what eavesdropping he could, but no one had said anything that seemed like a clue. He prayed that no one would remember there was one less person with his comrades trying to get back into town. He could see the other heroes being held up, but after Mountain Man spoke he decided to wait and see if diplomacy could work. Nevertheless, he had held a length of pipe tight in his hands, just in case.
Dice got out of the truck and loomed up to his full, impressive height, his bowie knife still hidden by the car door. "Hey, easy on the car; it's a rental!"
Dice Morgan was not used to thinking in combat situations, so that was as clever as he got. He narrowed his eyes at one that he guessed was their leader. "Pal, you don't want any of us. Do yerself’ a big favor and put the guns up." He was hoping to draw attention away from the Mountain Man and Daoist so they could get close enough to strike. If it looked like the rednecks were going to open fire on any group members, Dice planned to barrel into the nearest gunman before he could draw a bead and kick him in the, well, Southern exposure.
The speaker lowered his rifle slightly and asked, "Milo, you say? That's really interesting, because I'm Milo." He lowered his rifle more and the other four men with him relaxed their aim slightly too. "Where are you from? Where have you traveled? What skills do you have?” Milo fired off in rapid succession.
Although everyone had been ready to rush the riflemen, it seemed that the moment has passed and an opportunity for subterfuge had arisen. After some vague answers, they learned that Milo had been hanging around town waiting for recruits from Missouri who had fled when Doc Savage defeated The Evil Gnome. “The pay is $10 a month just for being in the cult and there'll be more for you soon enough if you prove yourself useful. We need experienced soldiers, captain material, and you might be what we're looking for. Our temple is about a 10-hour hike from here and the terrain is so rough that you'd never find it without a guide. Why don't you get some rest at the Highland Inn and we'll set out in the morning?”
"I think that will be okay," The Mountain Man said. "Myself, I can do a lot of things. I'm handy in the woods and have some experience fighting. These other guys can speak for themselves if they choose."
The Daoist kept his mouth shut and his eyes low, doing his best to appear as some sort of manservant.
On the south end of the township was a small, 5-room motel. It had been dark and appeared to be closed up when they all passed it earlier, but now that the locals were leading them there, two lights came on inside and the front door was left open. The sign out front read "Highland Inn."
Black Cat by Steve Rude
8 hours ago