The Westbury fire-engine was the cause of just pride to its operators. It was a new type auto-engine and capable of making a speed of fifty miles an hour. While several men and boys, aroused by the clamor of the big bell, summoned the men who were sleeping away from the fire-house, the others got the engine going. Soon puffing and chugging like some fiery-eyed monster, the racing fire-fighter was ready to start.
"You know the road?" asked Frank.
"As well as I do my own face," was the merry reply of the chief.
"Suppose you fellers will follow in your buggy," yelled the chief as the auto-engine started on its dash.
"We didn't come in a buggy," shouted back Frank.
"S'pose you flew," sarcastically cried the man on the engine.
"Gee-whiz," was all that was audible of the amazed fireman's reply as the big engine whizzed off.
Frank's assertion called for some explanation to the crowd of bystanders, and after he had given an account of their trip most of the crowd that had got out of bed at the summons of the fire-bell accompanied them to the meadow where the old watchman was still eyeing the Golden Eagle with suspicion. So closely did the curious crowd press about that it was some time before the boys were once more aboard their craft and in the air.
Fifteen minutes later they were receiving the congratulations and thanks of the crowd and Farmer Goggins, for, thanks to the timely summons of the air-ship, the auto fire-engine had made the run in time to save the most valuable of the buildings.
NEARLY OUT OF THE RACE.
The day of the big race in which the various air-craft had been entered dawned fair and cloudless. There was not a breath of wind and the conditions seemed propitious for making ideal flights.
The big crowds that early thronged the grounds thought so too. They strolled about, poking their heads into various sheds and making conditions almost unbearable for the various flying-men who were busily preparing their machines within.
A band had been engaged and was blaring away at popular tunes. All the aerodromes were draped with flags, and bunting of all kinds made the grounds gay indeed.
But the gayety did not extend inside the boys' aerodrome where, in fact, dismay reigned.
To explain its cause we must go back a little and recount some happenings of the preceding night.
While the boys and Le Blanc had been sound asleep, the figure of Sanborn had upraised itself from his cot and quietly sneaked over to the aeroplane. Softly he worked with a wrench and screw-driver for some time, and then with an exclamation of:
"That will fix you," he had softly tiptoed out of the tent carrying the detached main guiding lever of the ship. He rapidly traversed the deserted aviation grounds and flung the important part of the air-craft's mechanism into a clump of bushes. Thus did Sanborn carry out his promise to Malvoise and Luther Barr to cripple the Golden Eagle.
"There, that's done," he said, with an evil sneer, "and now I'll make myself scarce. I came too near to being caught by that whiskered old Apache, Bluewater Bill, the other night, to make it healthy for me round here when it is discovered that the lever is gone. However, I managed to overhear all the details of the treasure galleon and if old man Barr doesn't make the knowledge worth my while he's not so greedy after gold as I thought he was."
Thus musing, Sanford walked rapidly off in the direction of the village.
When the boys awoke on the eventful day, naturally their first thoughts were of the machine in which they hoped so ardently to win the aviation trophy. Their dismay may be better imagined than put into words when they discovered their loss.
"It puts us out of the race," was Harry's despairing cry.
"We can never replace it by two o'clock, the time set for the start," was Frank's despairing exclamation.
Suddenly they realized that Sanborn also was missing. Like a flash Frank realized that it must have been their mechanic who had done the damage. It would have been impossible for any one to enter the shed from the outside without leaving traces, as the lock was on the interior of the door.
Le Blanc raged round the shed like a wild man. It would have fared ill with Sanborn had he fallen into the hands of the Frenchman just then. Le Blanc regarded the Golden Eagle like his own child and his rage would have been comic from the antics it made him perform if the situation had not been so serious.
What was to be done?
Frank tried device after device in his anxiety to provide a substitute lever, but they all proved too frail. It was impossible to get a duplicate at such short notice, as the levers were especially made for the Golden Eagle.
"Well, boys, it looks as if we will have to disqualify," finally pronounced Frank, after his fifth endeavor at a substitute lever had broken off short when a strain was placed on it.
"I wish I could get hold of that fellow for just five minutes," groaned Harry.
"I was foolish not to discharge him when I made up my mind to do so," rejoined Frank. "I felt all along that the fellow was a scoundrel."
Bluewater Bill had entered the shed while the boys were discussing the situation and Le Blanc was tearing his hair. He was soon made acquainted with what had happened.
"Say," he said finally after due consideration, "that was a pretty heavy lever, wasn't it, boys?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"Then he didn't carry it very fur. This fellow Sandboy, I mean."
"I don't suppose so," rejoined Frank.
"In that case he must have hidden it somewhere."
"That's true, but that doesn't put us any nearer to finding it."
"Have you tried?"
"Well, then, here's what you do. Announce your loss on the grounds by posting a notice and offering a reward. Maybe someone will show up who has found it."
"That's a pretty slim chance," despairingly said Frank.
"Worth trying. I had a pretty slim chance when I was in that launch. It's slim chances that win out lots of times."
"Well, perhaps, as you say, it is worth trying. Anyhow I'll write out a notice and post it on the outside of the shed."
Frank rapidly wrote out a description of the missing aeroplane lever and soon it was tacked up on the door of the shed. An eager crowd surrounded it at once and soon a score of men and boys were searching over the grounds in the hope of being able to claim the reward.
As the time wore on and there seemed to be no chance of their contesting in the race, the boys grew more and more angry at the thought of Sanborn's treachery.
"We ought to have him locked up if we can get hold of him," was Harry's indignant exclamation.
"That's just the trouble, that little 'if,'" put in Billy Barnes. "I'll bet he's a long way off by this time. What motive can he have had in removing the lever?"
"Somebody must have put him up to the job, that's certain to my mind," said Frank.
"I think so, too," agreed Harry, "I have it," he cried suddenly. "I'll bet that fellow Malvoise is in this some way. He'd do anything to see us lose."
"I wish we could prove it on him," sighed Frank.
At this point a gray head stuck itself into the shed and the boys, as they recognized its possessor, shouted:
"Come in, Mr. Joyce."
A rapidly healing scar was all that remained of the injury that had sent the old man to the hospital. He had found work on the grounds and was fast recovering his health.
"Well, I suppose you boys are going to win the cup," he said, smilingly, as he came in. "I had a letter from my daughter to-day in which she asked to be remembered to you and to convey to you her best wishes for your success."
"Thank you," politely answered Frank, "but I am afraid we are out of the race."
He hastily explained the loss of the lever and the old man shook his head sympathizingly. He examined the aeroplane carefully but was unable to suggest a substitute for the missing lever.
"If you had been able to race, I had some advice for you," he said. "As I told you when you visited me at the hospital, I am the inventor of the Buzzard and the plans and patents were wrongfully obtained from me by a trick. I know the Buzzard's strong points but I also know her weak ones. When going at full speed she cannot steer round into the wind which is, I hear, one of your aeroplane's good features. Now, if you had gone into the race to-day, with the direction in which the wind is blowing, you could have outgeneraled Malvoise by forcing him to make such a maneuver. I would give anything to see the man who robbed me of my designs robbed, in his turn, of the cup."
The old man clenched his fists as he spoke and his eyes shone.
"If only we had the lever we might still defeat his attempt to put us out of the race, for I am now certain that Sanborn was bribed by him to deprive us of it," exclaimed Frank.
At this moment a sound was heard that brought them all to their feet. It was a shout from the crowd which grew nearer every minute. As the boys ran to the door to see what could be the matter, and if the uproar had been induced by an accident to one of their competitors, they saw a sight that made their eyes dance.
A small boy was laboriously dragging toward the shed the missing lever while the crowd pressed about him enthusiastically.
"Hurray!" shouted the boys. "We'll be in the race after all."
The small boy soon told of his discovery of the lever in a clump of bushes into which he had crawled in search of a missing ball he had been playing with. He did not know what it was he had found, till one of the crowd who had read the "Lost" notice, recollected it and told the lad to take his find to the Golden Eagle shed. There certainly was one happy soul in Mineola that day as the little fellow pranced off with the easiest money he had ever earned.
But happier still were our young heroes, as they rapidly adjusted the lever and fitted their craft for the race, the starting moment for which was now only a brief time away.
"You have never told us who that man was, Mr. Joyce," reminded Frank.
"No, I have not," replied the old inventor, his excitement rising, "but I will tell you now. It was Luther Barr, the—"
He got no further.
"Luther Barr," amazedly echoed the boys, "has he gone into the aeroplane business?"
"He has, with the fruits of my industry," exclaimed Mr. Joyce. "Do you know him? I imagine from your expressions that you do?"
"Do we know him?" repeated Billy. "I should say we do."
Frank soon appeased old Mr. Joyce's curiosity and told him of their experiences in Africa with Luther Barr pitted against them.
"If Luther Barr intends making money out of duplicates of the Buzzard, that explains a whole lot of things," cried Harry, as Frank concluded.
"That's right," cried Frank. "I shouldn't wonder if he's at the bottom of this whole business. I only wish we had the evidence against him."
"Don't I too?" rejoined Harry; "but he covers up his tracks too cleverly."
THE GRASSHOPPER'S MISHAP.
The grounds by noon were fairly alive with crowds of curious men, women and children, and every train brought more. They swarmed about the aerodromes and almost drove the mechanics and aviators crazy with the ridiculous questions they asked.
"Oh, mister, what's that flapper for?" inquired a woman with a green dress and a red parasol of old Schmidt, the owner of the eccentric Green Grasshopper, indicating that machine's propeller.
"That's to keep the flies off, madam," gravely rejoined Billy Barnes, who happened to be standing by, assisting Schmidt to adjust his planes.
In the boys' aerodrome they were hard at work putting the finishing touches on the Golden Eagle and adjusting the lever.
"I wish I knew where that fellow was. I would certainly have him arrested and locked where he would be out of further mischief, for the time being anyway," angrily exclaimed Frank, as they worked.
At last all was ready and the sudden call of a bugle caused the folks who had brought lunches with them to hastily quit their meals in the shade of the trees that bordered the road and hurry out on to the field. They swarmed in such numbers that the judges of the course found it impossible to keep them back of the rows of red flags, that had been planted as a boundary mark, and therefore restraining ropes were stretched on stakes that had been hastily driven into the ground. This kept the throngs back effectually and gave the aviators clear space for their starting maneuvers.
The bugle rang out once more.
It was the signal for the competitors to make their appearance.
From every shed on the grounds there issued strange birdlike air-craft of different designs—in fact only a few of the machines were practicable at all. The others were destined for the scrap-heap. Their owners, however, all fairly beamed with pride, as their various masterpieces were trundled forth and took the places assigned them by the judges of the Aero Club.
The Golden Eagle, of course, received a burst of applause, for the Boy Aviators were by this time quite well known. The Buzzard, too, as her inkhued shape loomed up, came in for a buzz of admiration. Malvoise, in a leathern jacket of black, with black leggings, gauntlets and goggles, instantly set to work on a final inspection, looking like some species of sable imp as he dodged in and out among the intricate wires.
As for Frank, he contented himself with sending the Golden Eagle engine up and down the speed scale from 100 to 1500 revolutions a minute. All her cylinders worked perfectly and the steady drone, rising in intensity as her young owner speeded the mechanism up, showed that the motor of the big craft meant to get down to work without a skip or a break.
Inasmuch as most of the other contestants were testing their engines at the same time the uproar was deafening. The sweep of the propellers created back draughts that swept off the spectators' hats and gave the men who were holding on to the struggling machines all they could do to keep them from getting away. They were like so many restive race-horses breathing blue flames and spouting smoke.
Suddenly there was a loud shout, half of derision, half of fear, from the onlookers.
"He's off!" yelled the crowd.
The boys gazed round to ascertain what could have caused the sudden outcry.
To their amazement they saw the Green Grasshopper leaping and bounding across the field—scudding along like a scared kangaroo.
On his little seat clung old Schmidt, frantically endeavoring to manipulate his stopping levers and to cut out his engine. But something was wrong and he only scudded along faster than ever, for all his frantic efforts.
What had happened soon became apparent. The men engaged to hold back the Grasshopper while her engine was being tested had clung on well enough till old Schmidt insisted on getting on board his queer craft and speeding the engine to the limit. Then as the propeller reached its maximum velocity the terrific strain caused the holding-back grips to part and the machine had instantly darted away. The crowd, shouting and halloing at Schmidt, broke all bounds and dashed off over the field after the bounding Grasshopper, but it sped along far in advance like a wild thing with eager hounds in pursuit.
About half a mile to the right of the aviation grounds was a small farm occupied by a dealer in hogs. Straight for this little estate the Grasshopper headed, driven as it seemed by some perverse instinct. Schmidt, seeing evidently that he couldn't steer his craft, tried to avoid a collision as he neared the outbuildings by manipulating his elevating planes.
The move was successful, or at least was so for a brief space of time. The Grasshopper rose with convulsive leap, like that of a bucking bronco. She shot into the air to a height of about twenty feet and then suddenly, without the slightest warning, she gave a crazy swoop down and caught in some trees, landing her unfortunate navigator full and fair into a sty occupied by an old sow and her numerous progeny.
Such a chorus of squeals from the pigs and roars of fear and pain from Schmidt went up that the crowd, among whom were the boys, feared at first that several persons had been hurt instead of the luckless aviator. All at once, as they neared the pen, the figure of Schmidt appeared covered with mud and dirt—a sorry sight indeed.
He attempted to scramble over the fence surrounding the pen and had just reached the top rail when the old sow, in whom fear at the sudden appearance of the Grasshopper's owner had given way to wrath at his invasion, suddenly charged at him. She caught him, just as he was striving to maintain his balance, and the unlucky inventor for the second time that day was hurled to the ground.
"Are you hurt?" yelled the crowd.
"Am I hurt—aber I am dead, I dink!" shouted back the badly rumpled Schmidt. "Ach himmel! der Grasshopper is a pig-pen-hopper, ain't it?"
He hastened over to where the Grasshopper, her engine still going and her propeller still beating the air, lay like a dismal wreck in the trees on the other side of the pig-pen.
"Donner und blitzen, you Grasshobber, you my neck brek yet, I dink," roared Schmidt, gazing at the disaster. "Vos iss los mit you, any vay, you bad Grasshobber. Himmel! dot propeller almost takes my nose off. Aber nicht, I am a dunderhead. I forget to turn der switch; dot's vy I can't stob der Grasshobber ven she hobs avay."
Rapidly muttering these remarks in an undertone the old man finally turned off the switch and the engine, with a grunt and a sigh, came to a standstill.
"Vell, I am oud of der race," announced philosophical Schmidt, as the propeller came to a stop. "Aber maybe dot's chust as vell. If I ged into der race maybe I be by der cemetery already to-morrow."
As he was consoling himself with this thought a rough-looking man in overalls hastened up. He carried a shotgun.
"Get off my turnip land," he shouted to the crowd, "or I'll fill some one full of birdshot."
The crowd scattered, and old Schmidt among them; but the man with the shotgun was on him in two jumps.
"See here, you bumble-bee," he bellowed; "you and I have got an account to settle before you get away from me. What do you mean by coming flopping on to my farm and breaking my pig-pen?"
"Aber, I didn't come, der Grasshobber bring me—" expostulated Schmidt, "I vould much rather have been somevere else. I don't like pork except mit sauerkraut."
"Well, you've scared my prize sow out of a year's growth, smashed two rails of my pig-pen and brought a lot of folks, who ought to be at home instead of fooling around a lot of crazy flyers, traipsing all over my young turnips. Now, the question is-how much do you owe me?"
"How much do I owe you?" spluttered the German. "Ach, ve are quits, I dink. I spoil your pig-pen, but your pig-pen spoil my suit and your sow scare me oud of TWO years' growth."
"Now, don't get funny. Fork over fifty dollars or you go to the constable."
Old Schmidt's face was a study. Finally, however, he produced a fat wallet, and peeling off two twenty-dollar bills and a ten, he handed them over with a sigh.
"Ach, you leedle Grasshobber, fifty dollars for your trip, and then you don't fly excepd in mit der hogs," he exclaimed, shaking his fist at the inanimate wreck of his craft.
A loud report of a gun brought the crowd's attention from this scene, which they had watched from a respectful distance, back to the aviation grounds.
It was the warning gun.
In ten minutes the big race would start.
THE AERO RACE.
As the echoes of the starting gun sounded, and women screamed at the loud report, a dozen air-craft shot forward like horses leaping from the barrier at a race-track.
Off over the ground they scudded—faster—faster—faster.
From their wheels arose clouds of dust and a trail of gasolene-tainted blue smoke spread behind them, like the tail of a comet. After a run of about five hundred feet a shout arose from the crowd as the Buzzard left the ground and suddenly shot upward. The next minute she was followed closely by the Golden Eagle.
A thrill of excitement swept through the throng as the two aeroplanes almost simultaneously rose.
Another air-craft, and then another, closely followed by a third, took off after the first two. It was a magnificent spectacle and the roar of the crowd showed their appreciation of the marvel of witnessing five aeroplanes in the air at once.
Of the other starters two came to grief with engine troubles and yet two others crashed together in collision. A third, a queer freak craft with flopping wings instead of a propeller, piled on top of them and they were soon tangled in an inextricable mass of wires, torn canvas, twisted braces, levers and angry aviators. This accident left the field—or rather the air—clear for the other five contestants.
Almost in a line the quintette swept along, heading straight as homing pigeons for the Harrowbrook Country Club, where a big delegation of enthusiasts awaited to watch the contestants alight, drink the prescribed cup of coffee, take on gasolene and start back.
"Steady as she goes, old boy," said Frank, as Harry excitedly cried to him to put on more power, "we are doing very nicely."
"But look at the Buzzard" cried the younger boy, "she's ahead of us!"
It was true their chief rival—on a lower course than the Golden Eagle—had indeed forged about half a mile to the fore. From time to time the boys could see the black figure of her operator turn about and gaze back to gauge the distance he was ahead.
The roar of the crowd had died out several minutes before and the only sound to be heard now, as the Golden Eagle swept along at a height of five hundred feet or more, was the drone of the engines of their own and the other contestants' craft.
Of the other starters, Gladwin was the nearest to the boys. He was driving ahead at a forty-mile clip about fifty feet below them and a little to the west. Owing to the construction of his machine, the wind was sweeping him more and more off his course as he rose, and the boys saw they had little to fear from him. The others were in a bunch, a quarter of a mile to the rear, and, even as they glanced back, the boys saw one of the aviators dive downward and land. Evidently something had gone wrong with his engine.
The wind was freshening and this, while good for the boys, evidently meant trouble for the Buzzard; for the black craft, swiftly as she was going, was now giving occasional giddy careens. Malvoise apparently had a hard time to keep her on an even keel.
The ground below them, a vast level plain, was dotted all over its flat surface with automobiles, men and women on horseback, and boys and men on motorcycles, but fast as the people following the aeroplanes drove their various means of progression, the sky clippers flew along even faster.
The Golden Eagle was capable of making seventy miles an hour and, as her engine warmed up and Frank speeded up the spark and found a favorable air current, she gradually picked up speed till she found her full capacity.
Through powerful binoculars Harry scrutinized the landscape ahead. It didn't take him long to make out the low white buildings, with their red roofs that marked the half-way point of the race—namely, the Harrowbrook Club. So swiftly were they going that it seemed as if the buildings rushed at them instead of their dashing toward the buildings.
Ten minutes later the Buzzard, amid a perfect scream of frenzied welcome, dropped on to the wide sweep of green lawn in front of the club-house, followed almost in the same breath by the Golden Eagle. Rapidly the other four craft left in the race descended also.
The coffee tables and the gasolene cans were placed on the club-house veranda, about five hundred yards from where the machines had alighted. As they scrambled from their seats, the aviators made a rush for the spot. Frank and Harry had the only 'plane in the race occupied by two; but of course they could not both go to the veranda. Frank, therefore, dashed off, leaving Harry standing by the Golden Eagle. He was kept busy explaining its points to the admiring throng. To save all the time possible the engine had not been cut out, but was merely disconnected from the propellers and throttled down. A brief examination showed that it was almost as cool as when they had started on the race.
And now Frank was back with the gasolene, his mouth scorched with the almost boiling coffee he had hastily poured into it. Malvoise had been scalded worse than the boy aviator, but he had manfully choked down the hot fluid and arrived at the side of the Buzzard at practically the same moment as Frank.
Hurriedly the cap of the fuel tank was unscrewed and the contents of the gasolene can poured in. Amid a murmur of excitement, the boys climbed back into their seats. At the same instant Malvoise prepared to start. There was not a second between them in the making of this action, but the watches of the timers at the Harrowbrook showed the Frenchman to be a minute ahead of the Boy Aviators.
With a quick movement Frank threw his engine first into neutral, then medium, and then up to third speed.
"Let go," he shouted with a sweep of his hand to the volunteers holding back the big 'plane, and the next instant they were off once more and on the home stretch.
Simultaneously a rush of wings sounded close beside them and the black aeroplane swept by them, seemingly gathering velocity at every revolution of its engine.
"That's a great machine," exclaimed Frank admiringly.
"But ours is a better one," expostulated Harry.
"That's to be seen, Harry," rejoined his brother, "he's a minute ahead of us now, you know."
"I hope he breaks down," exclaimed the younger lad.
"No, if we beat him, we want to do it fairly and squarely," replied Frank. "I think we have a better machine, and the only way to prove it is to beat the Buzzard at its best."
No more words were exchanged as the two machines tore onward back toward the starting-point.
The others had lost so much time getting into the air at the Harrowbrook grounds that they were practically out of the race. The contest lay between the Buzzard and the Golden Eagle.
Suddenly, as they were racing high above a road that showed far below them like a bit of white ribbon. Harry uttered an exclamation and pointed downward.
Directly beneath them an automobile was moving along, and as Frank gazed downward for a fraction of a second he saw a man, seated in the tonneau, place a glittering object to his shoulder.
Something that sounded like a big bee sang by the boys' ears.
"A bullet!" cried Harry.
"They are shooting at us!" exclaimed Frank.
"I know that automobile," suddenly cried Harry, "it's Luther Barr's."
"So it is."
"And," shouted Harry, bringing his glasses to bear on the car, "the man with the rifle is that sneak Sanborn."
Before Frank could reply another bullet sang by them.
This one ripped a hole in the upper plane, but fortunately a hole of such size did not affect the machine.
"They are trying to hit the engine," cried Harry the next minute as a third bullet whistled unpleasantly near.
"Or more likely the fuel tank," corrected Frank.
"The cowards," cried the indignant Harry.
Whatever the intentions of the men in the auto had been, however, they came to nothing, for a sudden turn in the road compelled them to turn off almost at right angles from the course taken by the air-craft. As a last farewell bullet whizzed harmlessly by, Harry, through the glasses, saw a familiar figure spring upright in the tonneau and shake his fist upward in impotent rage.
It was Luther Barr.
His features swam in the field of the glasses as clear as if he had been standing ten feet away. His lean, mean face was convulsed and gray with rage. He seemed to be furiously berating Sanborn, whose rifle, Harry now observed, was equipped with a silencer. With this appliance bullets can be fired from an ordinary rifle without even as much sound as an air-gun. It is a murderous device.
But now the boys' attention was imperatively centered on the rival aeroplane. The wind had suddenly become gusty and the Buzzard was behaving in a most eccentric manner. To the boys several times it looked as if Malvoise had lost entire control of her.
The tents and aeroplane sheds of Mineola were now plainly in view, and the boys could see the black mass of the crowd as it raced out to meet them.
"It will be bad for a landing if they don't keep them back," exclaimed Frank, as he saw this. "Someone will get hurt."
Suddenly, as a sharper puff than usual came, the Buzzard gave a lurch that Malvoise in vain tried to counteract by using his ailerons. These balancing devices are almost automatic in their control, and usually can be depended on to control an airship to keep an even keel, but this time not even Malvoise's skill could save the Buzzard.
Down she sped, straight as a plummet, for fully fifty feet.
Desperately her driver strove with levers and guiding wheel. But his efforts were of no more avail than if he had idly surrendered to disaster.
Like a stricken bird the Buzzard dropped downward. All her occupant could do was to check the awful speed of her fall by spreading his ailerons to their fullest extent.
Luckily for Malvoise a clump of willows, about a shallow pond, were directly below him in his fall and the Buzzard crashed into these, throwing him out into the soft pond mud in which he received a ducking, but no great harm.
It was the end of the great race.
A few minutes later the Golden Eagle swept to the ground almost at the very door of her aerodrome, and Billy Barnes, Le Blanc, old Eben Joyce and Bluewater Bill rushed excitedly forward to greet the young aviators. Madly the excited crowd pressed about them, among them many reporters from New York and Philadelphia papers, who had been sent to report the details of the great race.
It was an hour or more before a wagon arrived with the remains of the Buzzard, and Malvoise followed, mud-covered and angry clear through. He cast a malevolent scowl at the boys as he passed their aerodrome, in front of which the crowd still lingered, unable to gaze enough at the victorious Golden Eagle and her young drivers.
While Frank and Harry were still trying to tear themselves away, a blue-garbed messenger boy pushed his way through the crowd and extended a yellow envelope.
"Message for you," he grinned, "Mr. Chester." Frank took the envelope in wonderment. He had no idea whom it could be from. The look of astonishment on his face froze into one of amazement as he perused the contents of the message, which read:
You have beaten me once more. Next time you will not be so fortunate. I'll drive you cubs off the earth yet.
"Well, what do you know about that?" exclaimed the slangy Billy Barnes, as he in his turn conned the remarkable document from the old man, who seemed destined to be checked at every point by the boys.
LOST IN THE FOG.
It is a week after the race and the Hempstead Plains cup proudly reposes in a place of state in the Chester boys' home. On the morning in question the boys and their chums are getting ready for a test of Frank's pontoons, which, as our readers know, he had already begun to figure on as soon as Bluewater Bill had unfolded his strange tale of the Golden Galleon of the Sargasso.
In a quiet bay on the north shore of Long Island the tests were to be made, and a launch had been engaged for the occasion. At the commencement of this chapter our readers are to imagine the boys on a train speeding toward Lone Cove, where they plan to embark. In the baggage car are the "pontoons," which in reality are two cylinders of aluminum, about twenty feet in length by three in diameter and capable of sustaining a weight of almost a ton. To the bottom of each, Frank had riveted a thin "keel" of manganese bronze with a heavy fin of lead affixed to it. This was to give stability in the rough waters they ran a chance of encountering on the outskirts of the Sargasso.
A space of about two feet at each end of the pontoons had been partitioned off, so as to form four tanks in which water and gasolene could be stored. Caps screwed over vent-holes provided opportunity to insert a small pump when it was necessary to draw on the emergency supplies or water ballast thus carried.
Lone Cove, a small sand-bordered inlet off the Sound, was reached after a run of about two hours and the tanks—boxed in long wooden cases so as to avoid the scrutiny of any villagers who might prove too curious—were transferred to a wagon and carried to the small wharf where the Ocean Spray, the launch the boys had chartered for their experiments, lay at anchor.
Her owner, an old beachman, at once turned the craft over to the party and expressed a lot of curiosity, which was not gratified, as the boys knocked the cases off the "pontoons" and then floated them. With the boards from the cases, a sort of platform was then constructed between the floating tanks and lashed to them with stout wire. The wonderment of the old waterman was in no wise decreased when he saw the boys then fall feverishly to work and load the dinghy, attached to the launch, with large stones. When they had her piled to the water line, they pulled out to where they had anchored the tanks with their bridge-like platform, and commenced to place the rocks on board till Frank estimated that there was as much weight reposing on the pontoons as they would be called upon to bear when the Golden Eagle was super-imposed on them.
As Frank had figured, the tanks were immersed for about a third of their depth under the weight, and when the burden of the boys and Bluewater Bill was added, they sank till about half their circumference was above and half below the water. The whole contrivance was then taken in tow of the Ocean Spray, in order to ascertain just how she would behave under the speed at which it was hoped the propellers of the Golden Eagle would drive her when the contrivance was affixed to her bed plates.
It was a perfect day, and as the boys emerged from the mouth of the inlet and the blue expanse of the Sound spread before them, they fairly shouted with delight at the sparkling water and invigorating air.
"How long are you going to stay out?" asked Bluewater Bill, as the Ocean Spray plunged bravely forward and the sharp-nosed pontoons, to the boys' delight, clove the water behind without making any noticeable resistance.
"The Golden Eagle will drive over any seaweed that ever floated on these," shouted Billy excitedly as he gazed back.
"How long are we going to stay out?" repeated Frank, in reply to Bluewater Bill's question. "Oh, not more than an hour or so, but it's such a glorious day I'd like to keep on going for a while."
"So would we," chorused the others.
"Wall," was the old-sailor's rejoinder, "I don't want to be a spoil-sport, boys, but do you see that haze yonder?"
Over on the Connecticut shore, which lay a low, blue line on the opposite horizon, a sort of haze, floating like a silken scarf, was indeed quite observable when attention was called to it.
"What is it?" asked Frank.
"It looks to me like fog," said Bluewater Bill, slowly, "but it may be nothing. Anyhow we've got time for a cruise afore it comes up, I reckon."
"Oh, lots of time," rejoined Frank confidently, as he gave the wheel a twist and sent the little Ocean Spray, a twenty-five foot craft, dancing clear into the sparkling seas that came tumbling along. As her sharp bow encountered them, the speedy little craft tossed the water in glittering cascades back over her foredeck. The pleasantly stinging spray blew in a moist cloud back in the young voyagers' faces.
"Say, Frank," exclaimed Billy, suddenly, "let me take a cruise on those pontoons, will you? I've read about rafts ever since I was knee-high to a bicycle pump, but I never rode on one."
"All right, Billy," laughed Frank, and after the queer craft astern had been drawn up by the tow-line the young reporter jumped aboard.
"Let out lots of rope," he cried, as the stone-laden contrivance bobbed about on the waves, "this is bully. A regular private yacht.
"Oh, a sailor's life is the life for me, Out on the ocean, out on the sea; Out with the whales, out with the shark, If a cat-fish mews does a dog-fish bark?"
The Ocean Spray once more forged ahead, and so absorbed were the boys in putting the little ship through her paces that not one of them noticed a curious change that was gradually taking place in the weather. The air had grown more chilly and an almost imperceptible film of mist was creeping over the sun-warmed waters. If Bluewater Bill had not dropped into the little cabin for a snooze he would have warned the boys of their peril, but, as it was, their first realization of the fact that the fog was upon them was their complete envelopment in a dense blanket of dripping mist.
If a curtain had rolled down all about them they could not have been more completely blotted out from their surroundings.
Everywhere the soft white mist baffled sight. From the stern of the Ocean Spray it was impossible to make out the tiny vessel's bow.
The smothering blanket of pearly-gray vapor had enwrapped them so completely that in their first excitement they lost all sense of their bearings, and as they had no compass they were in a bad fix indeed.
Hastily Frank awoke Bluewater Bill.
The old sailor uttered a sharp exclamation as he emerged from the cubby hole in which he had been sleeping and gazed about him. The fog settled in glittering masses on his bushy eyebrows and whiskers, as he scanned the impenetrable mist in every direction.
"Whereabouts was you when the fog came up?" he asked suddenly.
"About in the middle of the Sound," announced Frank.
"Couldn't be in a worse place," commented Bill, "right in the track of the Fall River steamers and any other craft that happens to come up or down the Sound."
Even as he spoke there came the long melancholy boom of a steamer's whistle from somewhere in the obscurity.
Bill hastily searched the Ocean Spray's cabin.
"Well, we are in a fix, boys," was his comment as he concluded his examination of the lockers and cupboards.
The boys looked their questions.
"Ain't a fog-horn nor a bell aboard this craft," was Bill's alarming intelligence, "we may get run down any minute."
Again through the fog came the roar of the approaching steamer's whistle.
Ominous, full of sinister possibilities, the voice of the nearing peril roared through the fog.
Suddenly there was a shout from astern.
"Hey there, I don't want to squeal, but I'm getting nervous. Have you forgotten me or am I adrift?"
"Billy Barnes!" cried Frank, "I had clean forgotten about him. Come on, boys, lay a hand on the tow-rope and we'll get him aboard."
The engine of the Ocean Spray had been cut off by Bill, when he first discovered that the little craft was as helpless to aid herself as a drifting log in the dense smother. She now rode the swells silently and powerless.
In response to Billy's hail, the boys shouted back:
"All right, Billy, we'll have you aboard in a minute."
"Hurry up, it's awful lonesome out here," came back Billy's cheerful hail through the fog.
Frank and Harry laid on to the rope and started to haul the pontoons and their freight inboard, but even as their hands closed on the rope the booming roar of the menacing steamer's whistle permeated the fog once more.
It seemed as if this time it was directly over them.
"Start the engine," cried Harry, as the full sense of their peril was borne in on him.
The shriek of the large vessel's whistle was now sounding almost in their ear-drums. Frank expected every minute to see the obscurity pierced by a huge black prow.
But as this thought flashed across him there came a sudden diversion. The tow-rope they were hauling on suddenly was torn from their hands, almost dragging them overboard, and though they could hardly see it they could "feel" the presence of a huge vessel going past not twenty feet astern.
"Billy!" shouted Frank as the tow-rope was jerked from his grasp.
The only reply was a grinding, rasping crash as if some great object were brushing resistlessly past a smaller one, and then the whistle boomed out again.
This time, however, its sound came in diminishing form and as the Ocean Spray cruised round blindly in the fog, searching in vain for any trace of the raft, it grew fainter and fainter and finally died away into the distance.
Half an hour later a breeze sprang up, the fog lifted almost as suddenly as it had closed in and the Sound once more shone in the sparkling rays of the afternoon sun.
The boys uttered a shout as they perceived not a mile from them the raft bobbing about on the waves as buoyant as a cork. It had, then, evidently survived the collision, but in the same glance they saw that it had no occupant.
Billy Barnes had vanished.
They spent the rest of the day till sunset circling about in the vain hope of coming across some trace of the missing lad; but in vain.
If the sea had indeed, as the boys now feared with sinking hearts, swallowed their young companion, he could not have vanished more completely.
BILLY HEARS AN INTERESTING CONVERSATION.
When Billy Barnes opened his eyes, he found himself lying in a white and gold stateroom that seemed luxurious enough in its furnishings to be the cabin on some millionaire's yacht. Where he was, he had not the slightest idea. All that he recollected of the events preceding his awakening was his shout to the boys to be taken aboard after the fog closed down. Then came the sudden appearance above his head of what seemed a mountainous black steamer bow, a terrific crash, that hurled him from the pontoon raft into the water, and then a frenzied grip for a trailing rope.
As he reflected on these events and wondered where on earth he could be, the door opened and a white-coated steward stepped in. He seemed surprised to see Billy's eyes opened.
"You came to pretty quick after your ducking," he remarked. "I'll go call the doctor."
In a few minutes he was back with a pleasant-faced, gray-whiskered man who informed Billy that the ship that had run him down was the Sound steamer, Princeton, bound from Boston for New York. The instant the lookout had reported an object dead ahead, ropes and life-buoys had been thrown overboard, one of which Billy had managed to grasp and hold on to till a sailor could be lowered and the half-drowned reporter dragged on board.
"You held so tight to the rope even after you became insensible," commented the physician, "that we had a hard time to break your grip. How did you come to be out on the Sound in such a fog?"
Billy hastily related to him the events that had led up to his presence on the raft, only omitting, of course, the object of the experiments. The doctor was very curious on this point, but his inquisitiveness was destined to go unsatisfied. Billy had no intention of betraying the boys' confidence in so important a matter as the proposed recovery of the golden galleon. The secret was theirs alone, he reflected. What was his amazement, then, about half an hour after the doctor had left him, with orders to sleep if he could, to hear in the next stateroom a voice, which he had no difficulty in recognizing as Luther Barr's, utter the following words:
"Then we start for the Sargasso Sea as soon as possible. You have done very well, Sanborn, and you, Malvoise. You need not be afraid I shall not reward you."
"Thank you," the listening boy heard Malvoise reply, in his smooth tones. "We have indeed done all that we could to hasten the scheme. It was lucky that we were able to purchase that dirigible of Constantio's at Boston, for if we had had to construct one of our own we should have been in a hard fix to beat the Boy Aviators in getting to the golden galleon. As it is we will be there first and when they arrive they will find an empty shell of a ship for their pains."
"Ha! ha! ha!" Billy heard old Luther Barr laugh in his thin piping tones, "it will be as good as a feast to see their faces when they find that we have forestalled them. What is the best part of it is that they will never guess who gave us the secret of the lost galleon's location."
"I look to you to make that information worth my while," put in Sanborn's rasping tones.
"And I will," cried old Barr, clapping his withered hands together. "You shall be well rewarded, never fear. But now about your purchase in Boston—how much did she cost?"
"Twelve thousand dollars," was the cool reply of the speaker, whose voice Billy had recognized as being that of Malvoise.
"Twelve thousand dollars!" almost screamed old Luther Barr, "why you mean to ruin me."
"What, you grudge twelve thousand dollars when there are millions, perhaps, at stake?" demanded Malvoise's calm tones.
"No, no," old Barr corrected himself, "it's not that, but twelve thousand dollars is a lot of money. However, I'd gladly give twice that sum to get first to the lost galleon and her golden cargo."
"It's well worth it," commented Sanborn.
"Anyway, she is exactly the kind of air-ship we need for the recovery of the treasure," put in Malvoise. "Originally intended for Government use, she was turned back to her owner on account of a defect in the machinery which has since been rectified. She carries a fine cabin and a pilot house on her substructure, and is fitted up with sleeping quarters. Best of all, she is capable of lifting five tons beside her own weight. The hydrogen gas to inflate her with, we can carry down in tubes on your yacht and fill the bag when we get to the borders of the Sargasso, although Constantio, her inventor, who will go with us, has ideas of his own about hydrogen."
"But how are you to float her while we are rifling the galleon of her treasure?" demanded old Barr.
"Very simple," was the reply, "merely tether her to the galleon as you would a horse and when we are ready to load, haul her to a level with the deck and then with a full cargo of treasure—hurray for New York!"
"Splendid," cried old Barr, catching the enthusiasm of the other, "we will sail then, shortly?"
"As soon as everything is ready" was the reply of Malvoise, "we need one more man and I have advertised for him—now let us drink to the treasure of the Buena Ventura and may we soon have our hands in the sack."
There was a clinking of glasses as the toast was drunk, and then the trio conversed in lower tones. Billy had heard enough, however, to convince him that by some strange fate he had been rescued from death in the Sound to become the instrument of the discovery of a plot to beat the boys to the Sargasso and the treasure ship. Gritting his teeth he resolved to do all he could to frustrate the man who had tried to outwit the Boy Aviators in Africa and steal their hard-won ivory.
Two hours later, the Princeton docked at New York, and Billy hastened to despatch a telegram to Lone Cove, telling the others of his safety and that he had important news to communicate.
With what delight the chums received news of their comrade's safety may be imagined and they boarded the first available train to meet him at the Astor House in New York, where Billy had agreed to be at the appointed time.
As the young reporter hastened from the wharf, taking good care—as he thought—not to let old Barr and his two accomplices see him, he almost collided with a seafaring man who was hurrying down the wharf to board a Boston steamer that was about to pull out. The next instant his hand was caught in a mighty grasp that almost wrung it off.
"Wal, I'll be hornswoggled, Billy Barnes!" was the exclamation of the stranger.
"Ben Stubbs!" exclaimed the amazed Billy, almost knocked off his feet at the sudden encounter with the brave adventurer who had shared the boys' perils in Nicaragua, the Everglades and in Africa. "What are you doing here?"
"I might ax the same question of you," was the reply, "but one at a time as the feller said when they all wanted to shoot him at once for stealing a horse. I've got time and I can wait."
"You are the same old Ben, I see," laughed Billy; "but seriously, what are you doing here?"
"Why I was just on my way to Boston," was the rejoinder. "I seen this 'ad' in the paper where it said, 'Wanted, brave man, ex-sailor preferred, to assume dangerous mission—Big pay. Apply No. 46, Charlton Street, Boston.'" And Ben flourished a clipping.
"But, Ben," remonstrated Billy, "you have plenty of money from your share of the ivory. I thought you had invested it in a rubber plantation in Central America."
"That's right," said Ben, with a sorrowful air. "I invested it all right—sunk it, maybe would be a better word, fer when I gets down there to start in developing my plantation, I finds that you couldn't see my noble estate fer the water that happened to cover it."
"What!" exclaimed Billy, "you had been swindled?"
"Ay, ay, lad, that's about it. Some of these here land-sharks had trimmed me from top-gallant mast to bilge keel. They cleaned me out and left me high and dry. So when I see that 'ad' I says to myself, says, I, there's just the thing for me."
"Say, Ben," exclaimed Billy, suddenly, "Let me have a look at that 'ad' again, will you?"
"Sure," said the old adventurer, handing him the clipping from which he had taken the address, "here you are."
"Why!" exclaimed Billy suddenly, "L. B. are the initials of Luther Barr."
"What! that old cat-a-mount?" cried Ben, "is he still alive?"
"He certainty is and up to fresh mischief," was the rejoinder. "Of course there are lots of L. B.'s in Boston, but coupled with a conversation I overheard, it looks to me as if the man who inserted this 'ad' is Barr himself."
"What makes you think so, youngster?"
Billy launched into a narration of what he had overheard on the steamer after his rescue.
"Ph-e-e-w!" whistled Ben, as the young reporter concluded, "so the old varmint is up to his tricks again, is he? Well now, sonny, if this L. B. in the 'ad' should be the same as Luther Barr, it won't do no harm for me to be along with him. But first, I'll get my whiskers shaved off and that will make me look a heap different. Then I'll dress in a different rig and he won't know me any more than I'd know the old clipper North Star after they turned her into a coal barge."
"You really mean that, Ben?"
"Do I really mean it," echoed Ben, "well, watch me. Hullo!" he exclaimed suddenly, "there goes the last whistle. Well, good-by for the present and give me your address and I'll let you know as soon as I find out anything. Whoop-ee! it's good to see you lads again."
So saying, after a hearty clasp of the hand the former mariner ran up the wharf and was pulled aboard clinging to one end of the gang-plank like a fly.
As Billy started for the hotel to meet the others, he was musing deeply over what he had overheard. So engrossed was he in his thoughts, in fact that when a rather roughly-dressed man stepped in front of him and peered into his face once or twice, as if to make certain he was the lad he sought, Billy gave an involuntary start. He was walking beside the gloomy arches of Brooklyn Bridge, some of which are used for refrigerating plants and others to store all kinds of goods, from hides to tin articles. It is a little frequented part of town except by persons walking across town from East River steamers.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"Your name Barnes, young feller?" was the response.
"It is—what do you want?"
"Old man named Eben Joyce was just run over. They carried him into my house and he sent me to look for you."
"How did you come to recognize me in the street?" demanded Billy, feeling a strong distrust of the stranger, who had little rat-like eyes and a furtive manner.
"I was on my way ter yer noospaper office, guv'ner," rejoined the other, "but you see I had such a good description of yer handsome face that I couldn't miss but rec'ernize yer when I ran inter yer in the street."
Now if Billy had thought this explanation over he would have seen that it would not hold water for a minute, but he was excited by the events of the day and in no mood for reflection.
"Well," he demanded, "what does Mr. Joyce want?"
"I don't know, guv'ner. I didn't ask him that, you know. We always mind our own business, we folks on Vanderwater Street do. Come on, guv'ner, I'll take you there. It's only a few blocks. The old man does want to see you awful bad."
"As a matter of fact I had an important engagement," cried Billy, "but still if the poor old man is injured and wants me, I'll go with you."
"All right, guv'ner, I'll take yer there," promised his guide with a grin, "follow me and you can't go wrong. You've got a good heart, guv'ner."
So saying he dived into the shadow of one of the great arches and Billy the next instant followed him into the gloom.
LUTHER BARR'S TRAP.
Billy's guide conducted him under the bridge and along a gloomy-looking street of poor houses, huddled together like the cages of animals. The windows of many of them were broken and they were otherwise tumbledown, and the young reporter realized that he was in one of the most squalid parts of New York. He grew suspicious and was about to halt his guide and ask him some questions when the ill-favored conductor suddenly stopped in front of a particularly dark, gloomy-looking brick tenement, and beckoning to Billy, urged the lad to follow.
In spite of his misgivings, Billy entered the place and followed his guide up four flights of steep, unlighted stairs.
"Here is Mr. Joyce's room," he announced, flinging open a door. Billy stepped forward through the portal, and found himself in an apartment in which the paper was peeling off the wall from long neglect, and the light only streaked in through cracks in the closed shutters. Save for a rickety chair and a broken-down table, it was empty.
"Where is Mr. Joyce?" Billy was about to ask, when he felt himself seized from behind and a voice hissed in his ear:
"Well, Master Barnes, we've got you where we want you."
At the same instant a stout rope was drawn about him, pinioning his arms to his sides.
In his captor, as he stepped forward, Billy had no difficulty in recognizing Sanborn, the treacherous mechanic, and while he gazed in astonishment at the man there appeared from an inner room Luther Barr and Malvoise, the French aviator.
"You'd better let me go at once," cried Billy angrily. "What do you want with me?"
"Nothing very much," piped old Barr, "nothing very much, my dear lad. You are in a position to do us a great service, that is all, and I am sure, after your providential rescue from the waters of the Sound, you ought to be grateful enough to try to benefit your fellow man by imparting a little information. You see, we saw your rescue and had a messenger track you from the wharf and bring you here."
Billy was puzzled, but nevertheless somewhat relieved. He had thought at first that his capture was due to the fact that the boys' enemies knew that he had overheard their conversation in the stateroom of the Princeton, but it was now evident that they had some other motive in luring him to their obscure meeting place, and had no idea that he had played eavesdropper on their plan to forestall the boys in their treasure quest.
"Tell me first what it is you want to know," said he stoutly, "I cannot say whether I will tell you anything or not till I learn that."
"Well, we won't occupy much of your valuable time then," put in Malvoise; "what we want to know is this: "How soon are those young whelps, the Boy Aviators, going to start for the Sargasso Sea?"
"Suppose I won't tell you," retorted Billy, bravely sparring for time.
"Then we shall find a means to make you."
"Well, I will not tell you one single thing about our plans, and you might as well make up your minds to that right now."
"What, you won't?"
"No, I won't."
Malvoise crouched as if he was about to spring on the boy, but old Barr interfered.
"No violence now, Malvoise," he croaked; "we can use other means. I really think we shall have to use another method to bring this young man to his senses. First of all, however, search him, he may have papers on him that concern our project."
But a search of Billy's clothes revealed no paper that threw any light on the Boy Aviators' plans, and the baffled plotters looked their rage.
"Lock him in the inner room," ordered old Barr, "it's a nice warm place for a young man to sit and meditate on his stubbornness, and perhaps to-morrow he will have come to his senses."
Without more ado Malvoise and Sanborn picked Billy up in their arms and carried him through the door from which Barr and the Frenchman had emerged and thrust him forward into a small room without windows. It was really more like a large cupboard than a room, and most probably at one time or another had been used as a clothes closet in the days when the old house was a mansion and stood in a fashionable part of the town.
Billy heard the key click in the lock and found himself in total darkness. From outside came to him the mocking voice of old Barr.
"We shall be back at the same time to-morrow, Master Barnes; please be ready to tell us what we want to know at that time."
The others laughed; but Billy, angry and somewhat scared as he was, made no reply. Then he heard their footsteps die away and he was alone in the darkness in the deserted tenement.
He threw himself against the door with all his force several times, till his body was bruised and sore in fact, but it was of stout wood and yielded no more than if it had been the portal of a steel vault.
Seeing the futility of hoping to escape that way, Billy fell to trying to work himself out of his rope bonds. To his great joy after several minutes of wriggling he succeeded in loosening the not very securely tied knot and was soon free; so far as the rope was concerned. This accomplished he felt far more cheerful and set about trying some means of opening the door of his prison.
But without tools this was difficult—in fact, an impossible feat—as Billy, after a long period of wasted effort, found out. If only he had some kind of tool, however, he might be able to make some impression on the lock, he thought.
It was quite by accident that he encountered what he wanted. He was leaning back against the wall, after a long period of vain effort on the door, when his hand encountered what his sense of touch told him was a clothes hook, formed of bent wire—a relic of the days when Billy's dungeon was used as a cupboard evidently. With eager fingers the young reporter unscrewed the hook from the wall and then went to work to straighten it out till he should have a serviceable bit of wire with which to pick the lock. In his capacity as a reporter, Billy had some knowledge of the methods used by burglars; but he never thought, at the time the subject had interested him, that he would ever have occasion to put his knowledge to practical use.
Now, however, with his clumsy skeleton key he set to work poking about in the lock as eagerly as any marauder trying to effect an illicit entrance to a rich trove.
Just as it seemed that he would have to give up in despair, the lad's wire encountered a "tumbler" of the lock that yielded to its pressure.
Billy with a beating heart pressed and the lock, which in spite of its age seemed to have been recently oiled, probably by Barr, responded. The next instant with a click, the lock slid open and Billy walked out of the stifling air of the coop—free.
It was the work of only a few minutes for him to reach the street, as Barr and his accomplices had not taken the precaution to lock the outer door in their hurry. Probably they didn't think it necessary, anyhow, as it could never have occurred to them that Billy would be able to effect an escape from the locked closet, except by working a miracle.
Swiftly the boy threaded his way through the streets and finally reached the Astor House. He found that the boys had preceded him there and had gone away, after leaving a message with the clerk for Billy to call up the Chesters' Madison Avenue home in case he should happen to arrive after they had left.
Billy at once made his way to the 'phone booths and was soon in communication with Frank at the other end of the wire.
"This is the second time to-day you've worried the life out of us," exclaimed Frank, much relieved as he heard Billy's voice. "When you didn't appear at the Astor we were badly puzzled, I can tell you. We thought something had happened to you."
"And it nearly did," retorted Billy indignantly, "I've got a long story to tell you, Frank."
"Get right on a car and come up," was the rejoinder.
Billy was soon speeding uptown to the Chester boys' home. He found all the adventurers there in the room over the garage which had been given up to the lads as a workshop and experimental laboratory. With what wonderment the boys listened to Billy's tale may be imagined.
"I'd like to see the rascals' faces when they open that closet to-morrow morning," cried Lathrop Beasley, who had joined the boys' party at Frank's urgent invitation.
"It will be a case of 'gone, but not forgotten,'" grinned Billy. "But seriously, fellows, this shows the necessity of starting as soon as possible. It means a race between us and old Luther Barr."
"And we mean to win it," put in Frank in a determined voice. "It will not take long to adjust the pontoons to the Golden Eagle's frames, and that done we are practically ready."
"Where do you intend to start from?" asked Billy.
"We were talking that over on our way up to the city," was Frank's reply. "My plan was to charter a large cabin motor-boat at some point on the Gulf coast—say Galveston—and then round the point of Florida and keep on east across the Caribbean. Once we have arrived on the outskirts of the Sargasso we can erect the Golden Eagle on her pontoons and make a flight for the galleon."
"A good idea," cried Billy, eagerly, "we ought to have no difficulty in getting a good boat at Galveston."
"I have one already," was Frank's astonishing reply. Frank loved to spring surprises.
"What?" shouted the amazed young reporter.
Frank drew out a telegram.
"I got this to-night in response to a wire I sent a yacht broker there some days ago," he said.
"Read it out, Frank," urged Billy.
"Have what you want in gasolene yacht, Bolo. Fifty feet over all, twenty-five horsepower engine, auxiliary sails and fine cabin. Will charter reasonably. Wire at once if you want her."
"Sounds good," commented Harry.
"So I thought," said Frank, "and as we've no time to lose, it would be a good idea to telegraph them to get her ready for sea at once. I will also instruct the agent to get a ship chandler to stock her with provisions for a cruise of two months."
Billy threw his hat in the air.
"Hurray for the BOY AVIATORS afloat!" he shouted.
MR. "L. B.'s" DIRIGIBLE
The next morning Ben Stubbs arrived in Boston, and waiting till evening made his way to No. 46 Charlton Street. During the day he had had his whiskers shaved off which entirely altered his appearance.
The house bearing the number he sought was a five-story structure of gray stone, and had evidently once been a home of wealth; but the manufacturing district had long since encroached on the region and it now was the only residence remaining in the midst of monotonous blocks of houses of industry. In fact, at dusk—the time at which Ben Stubbs paid his first visit to it—the neighborhood was practically deserted, as the factory hands who worked there during the day had all gone home and they lived in another part of the city.
Ben "took his bearings," as he would have termed it, before he mounted the flight of steps leading to the front door of the house. He noticed that the windows were all shuttered, and to the casual observer it would have seemed that the house was unoccupied. The sailor's sharp eye, however, noticed that a cloud of smoke was proceeding from a chimney and that numerous electric wires were strung from the street poles into the house.
As he stood there gazing at it an old watchman, who had been sitting in a shanty in front of one of the factories, approached him.
"A gloomy-looking place that, eh?" said the garrulous old man, addressing Ben.
"Ay, ay, shipmate, you may well say that," was the reply, "a melancholer looking craft I never see. Do you know anything about the folks as lives there?"
"Very little," replied the old man in his quavering tones, "but that little I don't like. I've seen wagons drive up there with big carboys of acid on 'em, and sometimes in the night, when it's all still, I hear a great noise of hammering and strange lights gleam through the chinks of the shutters—ah, there's something queer about it I can tell you. All's not right in that house."
"Hum," said Ben, for lack of anything better to say.
"And for the last week," went on the old man, "things has been queerer than ever. I don't like it, I tell you, when at midnight you see a great dark thing come flying off the roof with a gleaming eye on it and a buzzing voice like a big fly. I leave it to you if that ain't enough to scare any Christian, let alone an old man watching a factory in this lonesome part of town."
Ben agreed; but to tell the truth, his attention had been distracted by the old man's description of the night-terror he had seen. In the old sailor's mind there was little doubt that the object that had so scared the old watchman was the dirigible that Luther Barr had purchased and which the crafty old millionaire was trying out by night so as to avoid attracting any attention.
"Well," said Ben lightly, "I've got a little business in that there house, shipmate, and if so be as I finds out anything about what kind of folks they are, I'll let you know."
"Thank you," rejoined the old watchman earnestly, "I'm getting an old man to have such scares thrown into me—it's really too bad."
Ben lightly ran up the steps, having nodded farewell to the old watchman, and the next minute pressed the electric bell. Somewhere in the far interior of the gloomy mansion he could hear the tinkle of the answering summons. The sailor, as he waited for the door to open on he knew not what, reached back with his weather-beaten hand to his hip pocket. He nodded with satisfaction as his fingers encountered the butt of a revolver of heavy caliber.
"All right, old bark-and-bite," muttered Ben to himself, "I feel better now we've shaken hands."
At that moment there came a great clanking from inside the door, as if heavy bolts and chains were being removed, and the next instant the portal swung open and Ben found himself face to face with a thickset man, who seemed, by his complexion and general appearance, to be of Spanish origin. His heavy eyebrows and thin, cruel lips gave him a singularly sinister appearance.
"What do you wish?" he demanded of Ben, with a foreign accent that agreed with his general makeup.
"Is Mr. L. B. at home?" inquired Ben, "'cos if he is, I want to see him particular. You see, I'm in need of a job and—"
"Oh" said the other, with what seemed to be relief in his tones, "you come in answer to the advertisement. Come in. I am glad you have called. We were sadly in need of a hand, and you seem stout and strong enough for any work we may call on you to do."
"That's as it may be," cautiously replied Ben. "I ain't delicate exactly, but I'd like to know just what my dooties are to be, afore I signs on for this cruise."
By this time the man with the heavy eyebrows had ushered Ben into a parlor furnished with what had once been great splendor; but now the hangings were faded, the furniture warped and aged and over all hung a musty aroma as if the place had been closed for ages.
"Sit down," ordered Ben's guide, "now then, first, where do you come from?"
"Right here in Boston," rejoined Ben, "that is, when I'm at home; but Hank Hardtack don't get a shore cruise very often. I follow the sea, guv'ner, from year's end to year's end mostly; but tiring of the foc'sle I thought I'd like a land job for a spell, and seeing your 'ad' in a New York paper, I happened to get a hold of, I made bold to call."
"What did you say your name was?" inquired the other.
"Hardtack—Mr. Hank Hardtack, sometimes called 'Skilly,'" said the unblushing Ben. "I'm a homely craft, but seaworthy, guv'ner."
"So I see," said the other, with a slight smile. "Well, Mr. Luther Barr, who is L. B., is not at home now. In fact, he is in New York; but I venture to say that you will suit him down to the ground."
Ben could scarcely suppress a grin of delight at the mention of old Barr's name. He was then on the right track. How lucky that the crafty old wolf was in New York, he thought.
"As for your duties," went on the other, "they will be novel to you. I do not suppose you are at all acquainted with air-craft?"
Ben shook his head, inwardly thinking, "If you knew what I know, my hearty."
"Well, this job is to help run a dirigible balloon," went on the other. "We advertised for a sailor so that we would be sure of getting a man who would not lose his head at a height and who would be an all round handy man. We have an engineer and a pilot and Mr. Barnes and myself at present complete the crew. If you will follow me I will show you the vessel."
Hardly able to conceal his satisfaction, Ben, with all the indifference he could assume, replied that he would be very glad to see the air-ship, and followed his guide to the roof of the house. The factories about them were mostly two- and three-story structures, so that the roof of the deserted mansion formed a fine workshop for those who did not want their movements spied upon or overlooked.
Housed under a protecting shed of canvas, stretched in a wooden framework, was a large dirigible balloon, its partially filled bag of yellow silk wrinkled and lopsided under its network of stout cord. Suspended below the bag was a framework, in the center of which was built a pilot house with a short "deckhouse," so to speak, extended astern of it. A runway extended fore and aft on the platform and was railed, clearly indicating its purpose as a sort of promenade deck, or perhaps a navigating bridge.
Ben's guide beckoned to the amazed adventurer to follow, and led the way through a small door, kept closed with a powerful spring, into what seemed to be the engine-room of the craft.
"A hundred horsepower here," said the black-browed man, touching the glittering cylinder tops of the gasolene engine. "The tanks are carried below and have a large capacity. We have a cruising radius of more than fifteen hundred miles on one filling."
Ben nodded and his guide, after indicating the various gauges, height and speed indicators and other instruments in the engine-room, led the way through another spring-closed door into a comfortably fitted up main cabin. Touching a switch he flooded the cabin with a soft light that glowed from a ground glass shade affixed to the engine-room bulkhead. The place was decorated in white and gold, and divans, covered with crimson velvet cushions, extended along each side of the chamber. In the center was a swinging table, and above it, in neat racks, were numerous charts and mathematical instruments, each in its own place. Six large portholes, three on a side, admitted daylight when the ship was out of the shed, and there was a window of plate glass in the floor, through which occupants of the cabin could gaze down to the landscape below if so inclined. Small staterooms opened off it.
The next part of the ship to be visited was the pilot-house, which was reached by a short flight of steps from the main cabin. In this part of Luther Barr's dirigible were placed the steering wheel, engine controls and wind and weather gauges. Large portholes, that could be opened if required, gave a view out on every side, and through two affixed at the rear of the pilot-house, which was raised about three feet above the cabin roof, it was possible to command a view of the stern of the ship. From the pilot-house, doors opened on to the navigating deck. Ben's attention was caught by an object shrouded in heavy tarpaulin on the deck immediately forward of the pilot-house.
"A rapid-firing gun," explained his guide, "you see we are going on a cruise that may be dangerous and so we are going armed. In the cabin, beneath the divans, are lockers in which ammunition and rifles are kept."
"Well, shipmate, I don't want to go on no cruise that threatens danger," cried Ben, hoping in this way to elicit something as to the nature of Barr's plans, but he was unsuccessful. The other merely shrugged his shoulders and replied:
"I did not say there WAS danger. There is none in fact—to us that is, but—"
He paused and checked himself as if he realized he was saying too much, nor could Ben elicit anything more from him.
"Well, you've got a good-looking ship here," was Ben's next remark, "but are you sure she can fly?"
"Fly!" indignantly cried the other, "like a seagull, man. We have tested her several nights from this roof. She is as safe as a street car. This wonderful craft, senor, is my invention—mine, the child of the brain of Alfredo Constantio."
He struck an attitude.
"Well, Mr. Constantio, you're all right," replied Ben," and now if you'll excuse me I'll just go round to my sumptuous apartments and get my ditty bag."
"Very well, I will come with you," rejoined Constantio, "you see, you have seen the secrets of the ship now, and I don't want you out of my sight till we are ready to sail on our venture."
This was an unexpected complication.
Ben had figured on getting out of the house on the excuse of packing his things and then taking a train to New York and apprising his young friends of his discoveries. Senor Constantio, it seemed, was too crafty for this, however.
"Well," thought Ben, "there is no help for it. I shall have to trust to luck to give him the slip I suppose."
Thus hoping the old sailor sallied forth with the redoubtable Don Constantio, who, for his part, was very garrulous and confided to Ben that he had sold his invention to Luther Barr for a big price, because the old millionaire needed a good dirigible in a hurry.
"But," he went on, "while I have a great ship, my main secret is in the gas. I have discovered a powder which can be easily carried and which when mixed with the proper ingredients forms the pure hydrogen gas. I make it in cylinders that will withstand a pressure of two thousand pounds. Hydrogen cylinders weigh, it is true, three hundred pounds each, they are of such enormous thickness, and are made of special steel—like a gun, but, Senor Hardtack, my powder occupies so little space that I can carry enough for several inflations in receptacles which combined do not weigh more than one hundred and fifty pounds."
Talking thus the black-browed inventor walked beside Ben, occasionally asking:
"How much further, Senor Hardtack, to your lodgings?"
"Not much further now," Ben always replied, wondering when an opportunity would present itself to escape. Suddenly one came.
As they turned a corner a small boy with a bundle of papers almost ran into them, and thrusting his papers up almost in Senor Constantio's face, shouted:
"Wuxtry, wuxtry!" with deafening lung power.
All at once he darted off, and at the same moment the inventor cried:
"My watch! he has taken my watch! While he thrust his papers in my face he stole my watch!"
Shouting "Stop thief" at the top of his voice he raced off in the direction the newsboy had run, and Ben lost no time in taking to his heels in the opposite direction.
After doubling round several corners and then doubling on his own trail round another block he felt reasonably secure he had given the inventor the slip and, hailing a cab, was driven to the station. He was fortunate in securing a train to New York without having to wait more than five minutes, and late that night the Chester boys and the others of their party were in full possession of the details of the air-ship in which Luther Barr meant to overreach them if it lay within his power.
OFF FOR THE SARGASSO.
The knowledge that Luther Barr's air-ship was so nearly ready to start on the expedition which Sanborn's treachery had suggested to the old millionaire, acted as a spur to the boys in making their final arrangements. By starting from Galveston itself they saved the necessity of laying in a large stock of supplies in New York, so that when two days later "good-byes" having been said and last parental warnings issued—their only equipment beside their personal belongings were the boxes containing the sections of the Golden Eagle and the pontoons. The coverings had not been removed from the aeroplane's surfaces, but they had been packed, covered as they were. There was a reason for this, as lacing on the coverings at sea, even with the additional stability the boys hoped to secure by the use of the pontoons, would have been a tedious or even perhaps an impossible task. The wings, therefore, which joined at the center of the aeroplane, above the chassis, were packed in four sections measuring twenty-eight feet each. These sections Frank planned to carry in the cabin of the Bolo where they would be out of harm's way.
Five days later the adventurers reached the flat, uninteresting city of Galveston and lost no time in making immediate preparations for a start. Frank found that the agent had followed his instructions to the letter, and the galley shelves of the Bolo were filled with small articles to be used in cooking, and that flour bins, sugar and other receptacles had been well stocked. Besides all this there was a plentiful supply of such staples as beans, onions, potatoes, bacon, coffee, tea and a big stock of canned meats and vegetables. Their weapons were the boys' own armory, and Harry put in the best part of a day constructing neat racks in the cabin, which, when the various rifles and shotguns were hung in place, gave the little chamber a very businesslike appearance. The cabin was twenty-nine feet long, and the wings of the Golden Eagle were therefore a snug fit when suspended on slings from the cabin roof. The aeroplane engine was also placed in the cabin. The framework and other less perishable parts of the Golden Eagle, as well as the pontoons, were placed outside on the cabin roof, securely lashed down and covered with waterproof tarpaulin.
In the space under the cabin floor was stored an extra heavy anchor for use in emergency, in addition to the two fifty-pound mud-hooks the Bolo regularly carried. The boys noted with satisfaction that the booms on which the Bolo spread her auxiliary sails were lengthy affairs and would readily lend themselves to use as derricks when the time came to hoist the various parts on the Golden Eagle overboard into the floating erection base. The Bolo also carried a twelve-foot, high-sided dory, almost as seaworthy, despite her diminutive size, as the larger vessel. Under the cockpit seats were reserve tanks for gasolene and water, and beneath the cabin floor and in the bow were additional receptacles for fuel. Besides this supply the boys laid in a stock of five-gallon cans of gasolene, which were distributed wherever they would fit in on the little craft; some even being lashed on deck alongside the cabin.
The transportation of so much inflammable matter naturally called for the greatest caution, and, much to the disappointment of Ben Stubbs, who had insisted on joining the expedition, and Bluewater Bill, Frank absolutely forbade smoking aboard the craft. Nor was anybody allowed to carry matches. The only lucifers aboard were locked in the galley under Frank's sole charge. However, they all agreed that no precautions could be too stringent on a craft so laden with inflammables and explosives as was the Bolo.
The night before they were to sail, the boys slept on board. The Bolo's cabin was equipped with folding Pullman berths and also with transoms. Each berth held two, and the transoms accommodated the same number, so that eight could sleep comfortably aboard the little craft. Early the next morning, while the appetizing aroma of coffee and frizzling bacon filled the cabin from Ben's galley, a youthful news peddler wandered on to the dock and took up his place with other curious persons; for the equipping of the Bolo had made quite a stir among the water-front loungers of Galveston. The lad insisted on throwing a paper on board for "good luck," he said. Frank, who was out in the cockpit at the time re-stowing some cases of gasolene, threw the boy a coin and thought no more of the paper till, as they were discussing Ben's breakfast, he idly glanced over its front page.
"Mysterious Air-ship," was the heading that instantly caught his eye and caused him to set down his cup of coffee untasted. Reading the article he found even more matter to hold his attention. The item was dated Miami, Fla., and read as follows:
"Much curiosity has been excited here by the sudden appearance of a tent housing a huge air-ship. The aerial camp is located at a point several miles south of town. The tent is guarded by men armed with shotguns and no one is allowed to approach anywhere near it. The air-ship, however, has been seen at night taking flights seaward. So far, no explanation of the object of the air-ship's presence here has been vouchsafed by those interested in it. They are all strangers here and will not impart any information."
A few paragraphs further down another Miami despatch caught the eye. It was to the effect that "the Brigand, the yacht of Luther Barr, the New York and Newport millionaire, arrived here yesterday and anchored off shore. Mr. Barr is not a guest of any of our hotels, but is making his home aboard his palatial craft."
"Well, here's some news as is news," laughed Frank, handing the paper to the others. "It just goes to show that we are not any too previous in making a start. Now, if everybody's finished breakfast, I propose that we send our good-bye letters ashore and cast off for the Sargasso."
"The sooner the better," cried Harry, diving into his locker for a letter he had written the night before. The others also had their correspondence ready, so no time was lost in entrusting the mail to the same gamin who had thrown the paper on board and making final preparations for the start.
With the exception of the loafers on the wharf there was no one to look on, as the Bolo, with the Stars and Stripes bravely flying from her staff astern and the Golden Eagle's pennant attached to her bow, chugged out of the harbor and into the open Gulf.
"Off at last!" shouted Billy Barnes, from his seat on the top of the piled up cabin roof, as the shores of Galveston rapidly receded and finally became a mere blot. "If we don't have some dandy adventures before we get back call me a doodle bug."
All that day and the next the Bolo forged steadily onward over the purple waters of the Gulf. The boys set regular watches and things moved aboard the little craft man-of-war fashion from the start. Every night at sundown "colors" were made, that is, the flags were hauled down and the sunset gun fired with the tiny saluting cannon the little craft boasted. Then the red and green side-lights and the white bow-light were set in position. After supper in the cockpit under the awning—for it was far too warm to eat in the cabin—there would be songs and stories by Ben Stubbs and Bluewater Bill, who had been appointed navigating officer and first mate respectively, of the good ship Bolo.
On the morning of the second day out the boys were treated to a rare sea spectacle. There was a fair seaway, and the Bolo was plunging along through it as if she enjoyed it as much as the boys, when a cry from Billy, who had the lookout, aroused them all.
"Sail ho!—or rather, steamer ho!" hailed the amateur A. B.
"Where away?" thundered Bluewater Bill, who had the wheel, in true nautical style.
Billy was up a stump. What to reply he had no idea.
"It's off our bow," he hailed back; "but I don't know if you call it port or starboard."
Steadying himself by one of the foremast stays, Ben Stubbs sprang on to the cabin roof.
"Steamer on the port bow," he hailed, "looks like a Mallory liner."
And a Mallory liner it was.
As the boys drew nearer they gazed entranced at the fine spectacle the huge black hull made as she rushed through the rolling Gulf waters, her bow piling up a huge creamy wave as she cut her way. Her passengers lined her rail and waved madly at the tiny Bolo, rolling and plunging about in the waves that did not even rock the big liner. The boys for their part waved with all their might and Billy blew a blast on the foghorn.