"Our scheme worked fine," announced the Scout leader. "Bet you never even saw Dick's signal."
"No, I didn't," confessed Jerry.
"Good reason why. You see, I figured out that if you shoot a flash straight out in front of you very long everybody can see it. A quick flash—well, anyone who saw it might think it was just lightning or the interurban. So I just snapped about a dozen straight up into the air, until I got a return flash from Dick. Then I used this." He pulled out a little pocket mirror. "I pointed my light straight at the ground, and gave him a dot and dash message by holding the mirror in the light. Some scheme, eh?"
Jerry merely grunted, but way down in his heart a deep respect was forming for these Boy Scouts and their resourcefulness.
"Just flash a few signals to those oars," he advised, taking his place in the stern. "And be careful with that left oar—she squeaks if you pull her too hard."
But Phil soon showed that he needed no advice about handling a boat. Without a sound—without a ripple, almost—they moved away from shore and cut out into the current.
"Safe to get out into line with the island, I guess. If they're watching, it's the shore they'll be most suspicious of."
"They? We've only seen one out there."
"Maybe. But I'm betting on a pair of them at least. It's about time for the boys to—listen to those Indians, would you? I'm afraid they're overdoing it a bit."
From the far shore, out of sight behind Lost Island, rose a hubbub of cries that sounded as if the island were about to be attacked by a war party of Sioux. A Boy Scout yell sounded out, the voices of Dave and Frank heard above the rest.
"Guess your two must have deserted your banner and joined the Eagles," teased Phil.
The island lay dead ahead of them, dark and still. Both boys had a shivery feeling of being watched, but no sign was apparent as they floated in behind the point of the island and noiselessly beached the boat.
"We'd best stay close together," suggested Jerry in a whisper.
"And by all means don't whisper—talk in an undertone. A whisper carries twice as far," countered Phil. Jerry marked down one more to the score of the Boy Scouts.
But there was little need for talk. The brush was heavy, broken by thickets of plum trees and an occasional sapling of hickory; the ground was boggy in spots, and once Jerry sank almost to his knees in oozy mud. A screech owl hooted in a tree close by, and cold shivers ran up and down their backbones. Unbroken by path or opening, the island wilderness lay before them.
They walked hours it seemed, trying their best not to advertise their coming in breaking limbs and rustling leaves, for the night was uncannily still. It was a great relief, therefore, when the underbrush suddenly gave way to a few low trees and after that open ground. Jerry was for plunging right ahead, relying on the darkness, but Phil caught his arm.
"Circle it," he commanded, and Jerry, little used to obeying orders as he was, at once saw the wisdom of the idea and agreed. They were nearly halfway around the open plot when they struck a path, evidently leading to the river. But the other end must go somewhere, and they strained their eyes into the darkness.
"A house, I do believe," mumbled Phil.
"Shall we risk going closer?"
"Got to. Not a sound now. Let's take off our shoes."
In their stocking feet they stealthily drew nearer the dark blot against the background. When they were within twenty feet they saw it was not a cabin, but one end of a long, narrow, shed-like structure, perhaps twenty feet wide and running far back into the darkness. They approached it cautiously and began feeling carefully along the higher side for some sort of door or opening. They had gone a good thirty feet, their nerves tingling with the hope of next-instant discovery, when Phil broke the silence with a low-toned sentence.
"There's a house or cabin of some kind less than twenty feet away."
Jerry did not look. His groping fingers had found something that felt like a door-edge. His hand closed over a knob.
"Here's the door!" he exclaimed eagerly, and then felt his heart almost stop beating. The knob had been turned in his hand! But before he could say a word, a sudden "Sh!" sounded from his companion.
"Did you hear it?" gasped Phil.
"What?" asked Jerry, his voice trembling in spite of him.
But Phil did not answer—there was no need. From the cabin came a sound that set every nerve on edge. It was a groan—the groan of someone in great agony.
A RESCUE THAT FAILED
In the excitement of hearing that groan, Jerry forgot every other thought. Both boys jumped at once to the same conclusion: Tod was in that cabin! Perhaps he had been hurt, or perhaps, even, that ruffian was mistreating him. With one accord they broke for the cabin, making for where a thin pencil of light hinted at a door. They wasted no time fumbling for the knob, but put all the strength of their shoulders against the opening.
The door gave, suddenly, and they tumbled over each other into a dimly lighted room. It was fortunate for them that there was no one there, for in falling Phil overturned a chair, which in turn managed to become entangled in Jerry's legs, who came to the floor with a suddenness that did not give Phil time to get out of the way. Half stunned, they lay there panting, till a renewal of the moaning aroused them to quick action.
Phil jumped to his feet and caught up a leg of the chair, that had been broken loose in the triple fall. It was well to have some sort of weapon. The sounds seemed to have come from above, where a trap door indicated a loft or attic of some sort. The boys looked wildly about for some means of getting up to the trap door, but the light of the smoky kerosene lamp revealed nothing. The chair might have helped them, but it was wrecked beyond hope.
"Perhaps if we called to him, he might answer," ventured Jerry huskily.
"First see if you can reach the trap door if you stand on my shoulders." Phil made a stirrup of his hands and gave Jerry a leg up. Wabbling uncertainly, but managing to straighten himself, Jerry caught at the edge of the opening.
"Nailed!" he exclaimed disappointedly as he jumped to the floor. "Shall we call?" Phil nodded.
"Tod. Oh, Tod!"
Only silence. Again they called.
There was an answer this time, but not of the sort nor from the direction the boys expected. It was more like a whine than a groan this time, and it came from the far side of the room. For the first time the boys noticed that there was a door there, partly open. They made a rush for it, Jerry in the lead. But he got no farther than the threshold. As he reached it, the door was flung open in his face.
In the doorway stood a sixteen-year-old girl, a slim, black-haired slip of a thing, her black eyes snapping. One hand was doubled up into a fist that would have made any boy laugh, but there was no laughter in the other hand. It brandished a wicked looking hand-axe, and it was evident from the way she handled it that there was strength in those scrawny arms.
"You get out of here!" she commanded, advancing a step.
Jerry backed away hastily, but Phil only laughed, trying to balance himself on the two and a half legs of the wrecked chair.
"I've seen you before, Lizzie, and you don't scare me a bit with that meat axe."
"It's no meat axe; it's a wood axe—look out for your heads," she retorted scornfully. "Clear out of here or I'll make kindling of both of you."
"Put down that cleaver, Lizzie, and let's talk sense. We came here to get Tod Fulton—he's my cousin, you know——" but that was as far as he got.
The girl, her face showing a determination that made nonchalant Phil jump up from his chair and beat a quick retreat, walked up on them, the axe flashing viciously back and forth before her.
"You're going to get off this island," she exclaimed, "and you're going to do it quick. No tricks now! The first one who makes a break gets this axe in the back—and I can throw straight. About face, now. March!"
There was nothing to do but obey. Sheepishly enough the boys turned and meekly let her drive them out into the dark. As she passed the lamp she caught it down from the bracket on the wall with one hand.
Thus they marched across the open ground, along the narrow path and out on the waterfront.
"Our boat is down at the other end of the island" remarked Phil, turning his head ever so slightly.
"I'll have my father bring it over to you in the morning," answered the girl relentlessly. "I see your friends waiting for you over on the other side, so it wouldn't be fair to keep them in suspense."
"You're surely not going to make us try to swim it?" pleaded Phil, pretending great consternation, hoping that he might delay their departure till something might happen to give them the advantage.
"That's not all I am going to do." Setting down her lamp on a convenient rock, and changing her axe to her left hand, she stooped over and picked up a pebble. With a quick jerk she drew back her arm and then shot it out, boy-fashion The boys heard the stone hum as it sailed through the air. An instant, and then a howl of pain arose from one of the Scouts dancing about the blazing camp fire on the other shore. It was a good hundred yards away.
"I just did that to show you what'd happen to you if you didn't head straight for that gang of pirates over there," she said grimly.
"You're some—tomboy!" exclaimed Phil, admiringly, Jerry thought, but the girl only laughed sarcastically.
"You first," she demanded. "You're just watching for a chance to catch me off my guard. I'm onto you."
Phil had no choice, so without more ado, he plunged in and began cutting the water neatly in the direction of the camp fire.
"He swims well, doesn't he?" remarked the girl, so easily that Jerry could have sworn she was about ready to laugh.
"He sure does!" he agreed. "He's got me beat a mile. Say," he coaxed, "we didn't mean any harm. We were just looking for a boy who was supposed to have got drowned up the river a piece but we believe landed here on Lost Island. Just tell me whether he's alive or not, and we won't bother you any more."
"Oh, you're no bother. In fact, I rather enjoyed your little visit— though I will admit you scared me a bit when you held the knob of the door to the hangar——"
"Hangar? What's that?"
"It's—it's French for—woodshed," the girl stammered. "It's your turn now," motioning toward the water.
"But won't you tell me about Tod?"
"Did you ask my father about him?"
"If it was your father, yes."
"And he didn't tell you!"
"No, and he wouldn't let us search the island."
"Well, I'm my father's daughter. So into the briny deep with you. I hope the fish don't bite you."
"But, look here," began Jerry, then fell silent and moved toward the waters edge, for the girl had picked up a handful of large pebbles and stood plumping them meaningly into the river.
The water was warm, and aside from his clothes, Jerry did not mind the swim. After he had stroked along perhaps a third of the way, he turned on his back. The light had disappeared from shore. He had a moment's impulse to turn back, but was afraid she might be waiting in the darkness to greet him with a laugh and an invitation to take to the water again.
He turned once more and swam steadily across the current. But after a little, once more he turned on his back, only kicking occasionally to keep himself afloat. He fancied he had heard some noise that did not belong with the night.
There it was again, that regular beat as of wood striking against wood. He listened intently, trying to place the sound. Finally, it dawned on him that it was a boat, rowed by means of a pair of loose oars.
His mind worked quickly. It could not be the Boy Scout boat, for the sound was not right for that. It could only be the man of the island, "Lizzie's" father—she had as much as said he was away. At any rate, Jerry decided, he would wait there and find out. If the worst came to the worst he could always dive out of sight.
Nearer and nearer came the boat. Jerry lay in the water with only his nose showing. He was too heavy-boned to be very good at floating, but the barest movement of hands or feet kept him from going under. At first he could make out nothing, but as his eyes focused more sharply he distinguished a slow-moving shape against the gray of the sky. It was barely twenty feet away, headed almost directly at him.
A few noiseless strokes put him inside the boat's path, but when he stopped paddling he realized to his horror that the boat had changed direction and was cutting in toward the island. It was almost upon him when he dived.
He was not quick enough. The landward oar caught him a flat blow across his eyes. Blinded, dazed, his mouth full of water, he flung up his arms. He had a vague sense of having caught hold of something, and he held on. Through a sort of mist he heard a voice saying laughingly:
"Hit a snag, John. Better be careful or you'll wreck the ship in sight of harbor."
Little by little Jerry's head cleared and he realized that he had caught hold of the stern of the boat. He could not see over the edge, but he could tell that there were two people in the boat, both men. They talked fitfully, but for the most part their voices came to Jerry only as meaningless mumbles. Once more the dark outline of Lost Island lay before him, and in Jerry's heart arose a new hope that perhaps this time he would not come away empty-handed. The boat grounded on the beach where he and Phil had stood only a few minutes before. The man who had been at the oars jumped out and pulled the boat well up on shore. Jerry, finding that he could touch bottom, had let go and now stood well hidden in the water.
"You might as well wait here in the boat," said the one who had gone ashore. "I won't be gone but a minute."
He moved up the bank. It was the same man Jerry had encountered twice before on his island visits. But who was the man in the boat? Jerry wished he dared come closer.
The minutes passed slowly, and the water did not feel as warm as it had at first. He was greatly relieved when once more he heard the rustle of someone coming through the tall grass. But though the sound came nearer and nearer, Jerry, his nerves literally on end, found the wait a long one. Would the man never get there?
But the delay was quickly explained. There were two instead of one crunching across the beach, and the other stumbled as he walked and would have fallen more than once had it not been for the supporting arm of his companion. Jerry could have shouted from joy had he dared, for some instinct told him that that swaying form belonged to no one but his chum, Tod Fulton.
And then, in an instant, the mystery was all made clear—at least for the instant. The man in the boat rose and struck a match so that the other could see to help wobbly Tod to a seat. As the light flared up full, Jerry had a good sight of the face of the man who stood waiting.
It was Mr. Fulton!
"TO-MORROW IS THE DAY!"
And then it was that Jerry saw that the temporary clearing of the mystery only made things darker than ever. For, why should Tod be rescued in this weird fashion? Why had the man refused to let Tod's friends come on the island? And why, why had Mr. Fulton laughed at Jerry's story—and yet followed his clue in this stealthy way? Jerry, up to his nose in the water, and deeper than that in perplexity, saw that the whole affair was really no longer the mystery of Tod Fulton's disappearance, but the mystery of Lost Island.
So, although he now felt safe from bodily harm, because of Mr. Fulton's presence, he made no sign, but waited there a scant dozen feet beyond the stern of the boat. He heard Tod answer a few low- toned questions of his father, but could not make out either question or answer. He saw Mr. Fulton pick up the oars and poise them for a sweep, dropping the blades into the water to exchange a last sentence with the shadow who stood waiting on the bank.
"Everything all right, then, Billings!"
"Varnish on the left plane cracked pretty badly, Mr. Fulton. I had to scrape it off and refinish it. It really ought to have another day to dry."
Jerry repeated, puzzled, to himself: "Left plane—what in thunder's that?"
Billings went on:
"You won't forget to bring the timer. Elizabeth will get it at the usual place if you can leave it by noon."
"It'll be there, Billings."
Not a word more was said as the boat was swung about and headed out into the stream, save that Mr. Fulton chuckled:
"Old Billings rather had you worried, eh, son, until he gave you my message?"
Tod laughed, so heartily that Jerry, who had watched his chance to cut out into the wake of the boat and hold on behind with one hand, could not himself forbear a little happy ripple.
"What was that?" exclaimed Mr. Fulton, a full minute after.
"I don't know," answered Tod. "I was waiting for it to come again. Sounded like—only he couldn't be here."
"It sounded like a laugh—and there's only one person, outside of a billygoat, who's got a gurgle like that."
"Your wetting didn't tame you down any, did it? Who's the goat you had in mind?"
"Jerry King—well, what in the world!"
Over the back of the boat clambered a dripping, wrathful figure.
"I'll be switched if I'm going to be dragged along at the tail of this scow and be insulted any longer. I laugh like a billygoat, do I? For two cents I'd scuttle the ship!"
But Jerry's anger was more put on than real, and under Mr. Fulton's banter and Tod's grateful appreciation of the attempted rescue, he soon calmed down.
"What was the matter with you back there on the island? We heard you groaning as if you'd green-appled yourself double."
"Groaning? Me groaning? Huh! Say, next time you go bearding damsels in distress and rescuing castaway fishermen, you learn how to tell the difference between a bulldog who's whining to get out and get at you, and a wounded hero. It's a good thing you didn't have a chance to follow up that 'groan'—you'd have groan wiser."
"One more like that, Tod," suggested Mr. Fulton wearily, "and I think I'll take a hand myself."
"But why," Jerry wanted to know, "didn't you come back home right away—if you weren't hurt?"
"Oh, but I was. You try going over that dam once and see if your insides-out don't get pretty well mixed up. I got a terrific thump on the back of the head when the boat turned turtle, and if I hadn't had a leg under the seat, I'd be in Davy Jones' locker right now. When I came to I didn't know whether I was me or the boat. I had gallons of water in me and—and I think I swallowed a worm or two; the bait can got tipped over—and all the worms were gone— somewhere."
"But why did you stay——" Jerry began, feeling vaguely that Tod was talking so much to keep him from asking questions. But he was not allowed even to ask this one, for Mr. Fulton interrupted with:
"I got busy right away after you had told me about your Lost Island clue, and soon got a message through to—to Mr. Billings there. When he told me Tod was safe and sound, I thought I'd wait until I had finished some important business I just couldn't leave. That's how it was so late before I got here."
"Mr. Billings came and got you, didn't he?" remarked Jerry, trying to keep the suspicion out of his voice. If they had a secret that was none of his business, he wouldn't pry.
"Yes," said Mr. Fulton, and made no further explanation.
"But there were two of you on the island after me, weren't there? Who was the other hero?" Tod wanted to know.
"Where were you, that you knew there were two of us?"
"I was all doubled up in that little anteroom where the dog was— doubled up laughing." Then he added hastily, thinking he had teased poor Jerry far enough: "But I was locked in."
"Why locked in, if Mr. Billings had gone to bring your father? Afraid you'd up and rescue yourself?" Jerry's tone was downright sarcastic.
"No, Jerry—you see, the island—that is," looking toward Mr. Fulton as if for permission to go on, "that is, there's something going on on Lost Island that Mr. Billings figures isn't anybody else's business, and he didn't want to take chances of my nosing around."
"I see," said Jerry dryly. "So of course rather than row you across to dry land himself he brought your father here to get you. It's all as plain as the wart on a pumpkinhead's nose!"
"Now, Jerry, you're getting way up in the air without any cause. I'll tell you this much, because I think you've got a right to know: Mr. Billing's secret really is mine. Just as soon as I dare I'll tell you all about it. But what became of your friend—if there were two of you?"
"I was so peeved that I forgot all about Phil. It's Phil Fulton——"
"What!" cried Tod. "Cousin Phil. Where is he?"
"Standing on the bank just opposite Lost Island and figuring out how soon he ought to give me up for drowned or hand-axed by a savage female. He may have gone for the sheriff by this time—or the coroner. Better take me to shore here and I'll go back."
Mr. Fulton began pulling the boat toward shore. "How did he happen to get into this?" he asked.
Jerry told him the whole story of the encounter with the Boy Scouts. "They've pitched camp there, so I guess I'll see if they can dry me out and put me up for the night," he finished.
As the boat neared shore Tod began to show signs of suppressed excitement. Finally, as Jerry was about to jump out into the shallow water, being already soaked through, Tod began coaxingly:
"Why couldn't I go on with Jerry, dad? You told me you'd let me go camping with the bunch, don't you remember? And I promised Phil I'd show him the best bass lake in the country——"
"I ought to take you back to town and let Doc Burgess look you over. Maybe the bones are pressing on your brain where you bumped your head. You act like it. But the fact is I didn't want to go back to Watertown—I ought to chase right down to Chester for that timer. It was promised for to-morrow, and there isn't a minute to be lost. There aren't any falls down this way, are there?" he asked with mock seriousness.
"Come on, dad, say I can go!" begged Tod.
"We-l-l," hesitated Mr. Fulton, "suppose we say I'll let you stay till morning—or night, rather. Then we'll see."
Jerry jumped out at this point and splashed his way to shore. He had a feeling that the two might want to talk without being overheard. Apparently he was right, as for a good five minutes the two conversed in low tones. Jerry tried his best not to hear what was said, but every now and then a sentence reached his ears. But it was so much Greek as far as he was concerned.
He had walked inland a bit, finally striking the narrow path that fishermen had cut along the top of the high bank. It swung back toward the edge, cut off from view by a rank growth of willows. He noticed that the boat had drifted downstream until it now stood almost opposite him, and only a few feet from shore. Thus it was that, as Mr. Fulton backed water with his left-hand oar and rammed the nose of the boat toward the shelving beach, he heard one complete sentence, distinct and understandable.
"It's up to you, Tod, to get them away. We can't afford any complications at this stage of the game. To-morrow is the day!"
"Trust me, dad!" exclaimed Tod, going up and giving his father's shoulder a squeeze. Jerry waited for no more. Bending low, he scurried far down the path, so that Tod could have no suspicion that his chum had overheard.
"Are you coming?" he shouted when he felt that he had gone far enough.
"Hold up a second and I'll be with you. Good night, dad."
"Good night, Mr. Fulton," shouted Jerry in turn, then waited for Tod.
The journey to the Boy Scout camp was made in silence, for Jerry did not feel that he dared ask any more questions, and Tod volunteered no further explanation. Just outside the ring of light cast by the deserted camp fire, however, Jerry halted and asked:
"Thought what you'll tell them?"
"Why, no. Just what I told you, Jerry."
"You can't—unless you tell them more. They'd never be satisfied with that."
"I'm sorry, Jerry. I'd like to tell you the whole yarn, but—but you see how it is."
"I don't but I guess I can wait. Only I do think you ought to have something cooked up that would stop their questions. Will you leave it to me?"
"Surest thing you know. What'll you say?"
"That's my secret. You play up to my leads, that's all you've got to do. Hello, bunch!" he shouted.
"Wow! Hooray! There he is!" came cries of delight from the darkness in the direction of the river, and a moment later the boys, who had been almost frantic with worry over the non-appearance of Jerry, came trooping up. When they found Tod with him, their joy was unbounded. Their excited questions and exclamations of surprise gave Jerry a much-needed instant in which to collect his story-inventing wits. At last Phil quieted down his dancing mob and put the question Jerry had been awaiting:
"How did you do it?"
"That's the funny part of it. I didn't. Tod's dad came along and did it for me."
"I hope he beat up that old grouch——"
"Huh, you got another guess coming. They're old friends——yes," as a cry of unbelief went up, "that's why Tod was in no hurry to be rescued. His name's Billings, and Mr. Fulton used to be in business with him. Is yet, isn't he, Tod?"
"Uhuh—I think so."
"Well, you may know there's fish around Lost Island. Billings is what I call a fish hog. He don't want anybody to know about the place—wants it all for himself. Tod drifts onto the island and the man can't very well throw him off, half drowned as he is. Then, when he gets the water out of Tod, all but his brain, he finds it's the son of his partner, and he can't very well throw him off then. There's a girl on that mound out there, and she comes in with a string of the biggest fish you ever saw. You couldn't drive Tod off with a club after that. After the fish, I mean, not the girl. He gets a message to his father, and makes his plans to stay there all summer, but dad comes down to-night and spoils his plans by dragging him off. He kind of thinks he doesn't want all the fish dragged out by the tails—he likes to hook a few big ones himself. I'd got out into the middle of the Plum when I heard the sound of prodigious weeping—it was Tod, saying a last farewell to the big fishes—and the little girl.
"So I swam back. And here he is and here I am, and we're both pledged not to go back on Lost Island."
"Righto!" cried Tod, in great relief, Jerry could plainly see. "And dad asked me to coax you chaps to keep away from old Billings—he's a regular bear, anyway. But to make up for that, to-morrow I'm going to take you to the swellest pickerel lake you ever laid eyes on."
"You mean bass lake, don't you?" asked Jerry maliciously.
"Pickerel and bass," agreed Tod without an instant's hesitation. "Let's turn in; we want to make an early start."
It was late, however, before the camp was finally quiet, for someone started a story, and that brought on another and another, till half of the Scouts fell asleep sitting bolt upright.
But as one lone boy, the last awake, rolled near the fire in his borrowed blanket, he chuckled knowingly to himself and said:
"Foxy old Tod! Dad sure can 'trust' him. But I'm just going to be curious enough to block his little game so far as I'm concerned. I'm going to stick around!"
A MID-AIR MIRACLE
Jerry had a hard time next morning explaining just why he couldn't go along on the proposed fishing trip. Tod was inclined to accept his excuses at face value, but Dave and Frank could not understand why Jerry should so suddenly about-face in his notions. Just the day before he had talked as if he was prepared to stay a week. But his promise of a speedy return—with his own fishing tackle—finally silenced their grumblings, especially when he agreed to make their peace with two mothers who would be asking some pretty hard questions on their own return.
But Jerry was not to get away without taking part in an incident that almost provided a disagreeable end for the adventure. It was while they were all at breakfast. Tod had been giving a glorious account of the thrilling sport he had enjoyed on his last trip to the bass lake he promised to guide them to. Suddenly, in the midst of a sentence, he stopped dead. His jaw dropped. He positively gasped.
"There she is!"
Then his face became blank. After a hasty glance about the circle of astonished faces, he went on with his fish story. But he was not allowed to go far.
It was Phil, taking a cousin's rights, who put the sharp question.
"Is your mind wandering, or what? 'There she is!' Who is she—and where? We don't want to hear your old fish yarn anyway."
"I guess he's still thinking of that island girl," suggested Jerry, realizing that Tod had put himself into some kind of a hole, and wishing to help his chum out. But Phil was not to be so easily satisfied.
"There's something mighty queer about this whole proposition. That yarn of yours last night, Jerry, didn't sit very easy on my pillow, and it doesn't rest very easy on my breakfast, either. What's the idea? What you trying to hide, you two?"
"Nothing," said Tod, and Jerry repeated the word.
"Nothing! You make me tired. Now, out with it. I swam across that creek last night in my clothes on account of you, and I figure you've got a right to tell me why."
"And I figure you've got a right to believe me when I told you why last night."
"You didn't. You left it to Jerry to cook up a story that would keep us from asking questions. And now you yell out, 'There she is!' and sit there gaping at the sky, with your mouth wide open as if you expected a crow to lay an egg on your tongue. What does it all mean?"
"It means I'm still capable of taking care of my own business!" snapped Tod.
"Oh—very well. After this I'll let you."
It was an uncomfortable group that sat about the rest of the breakfast, even after Tod had begged his cousin's pardon for ungrateful loss of temper, and Phil had said that it was "all right."
Jerry was afraid for awhile that the fishing trip would be called off, but in the boisterous horseplay that went with the washing of the scanty dishes, all differences were forgotten, especially when Phil, scuffling in friendly fashion, put Tod down on his back and pulled that squirming wrestler's nose till he shouted "Enough!"
It was with feelings of mingled amusement and relief that Jerry watched the noisy crowd pile into the two boats, the Scout boat and the Big Four, and paddle downstream, soon to be lost sight of behind Lost Island. His satisfaction was somewhat lessened by the fact that Phil had felt it necessary that one of their number remain behind to stand guard over the camp, but Jerry was sure that he would have no great trouble in keeping away from Frank Willis, trusting that "Budge" would live up to his reputation.
He began well, for hardly was the camp deserted before he went back to his blankets. "Now some folks like fishing," he yawned, "and I do too when the fish don't bite too fast; but I like sleep. It's good for what ails you, and it's good if nothing ails you. Take it in regular doses or between meals—it always straightens you out."
Jerry did not argue with him. A few minutes later his regular breathing told the world at large and Jerry in particular that so far as one Budge was concerned the coast was clear.
As a matter of fact, Jerry did not feel that there would be anything to see until late in the afternoon at best. The conversation between Mr. Fulton and the man Billings had seemed to indicate that nothing out of the ordinary was to happen that day, but Mr. Fulton's parting words to Tod gave Jerry hope. "This is the day!" he had said.
At any rate, he slipped out of camp and scouted about for a comfortable spot in which to keep an eye on Lost Island. But after he had sat there a half hour, he began to have twinges of the same disease that afflicted Budge and he saw that it would be necessary for him to move about a bit in order to stay awake. He regretted having left the camp without a fishing pole; that would at least give him something to do to pass the time away. With something like that in mind he started back toward the shady place where he had left Budge snoozing.
But as the walk started his blood circulating again, and his brain became active once more, he had a new idea. "Old Tod's a sly fox," he said to himself. "He's not going to be among the missing when the fun is on. He's going to take them down to his bass lake, and then he's going to slip away. He'll have to come back by land, so he'll probably take them to Last Shot Lake. It'll take them an hour to get there, but he can come back afoot in half that time if he's in a hurry—and I guess he is. He most likely will hang around half an hour before he thinks it's safe to make his getaway. That's two hours all told. In some fifteen or twenty minutes he ought to come skulking along through the woods.
"There's that hill yonder—it ought to make a good spy-post. Little Jerry bids these parts a fond adieu."
Something like a strong quarter of a mile down the river, and perhaps that much inland, stood a lonesome hill, almost bare of trees save a clump of perhaps a dozen on the very summit. It was an ideal hiding place. Leaving the road after cutting through the river timber and following it a few hundred yards, he plunged into a dense growth of scrub oak and hazel brush that extended almost to the base of his hill.
He came to one bare spot, perhaps an acre in extent, and was about to leave the shelter of the brush for the comparatively easy going of the weedy grass, when, almost opposite him, he saw a figure emerge from the trees.
At first he thought it was Tod, and he chuckled to himself as he thought how quickly his guess had been proved true. But when a second stepped out close behind the first, Jerry realized that neither one was his friend, even before he noticed that both were carrying rifles.
A pair of hunters, no doubt, Jerry surmised, although he wondered idly what they would be hunting at this season of the year. Rabbits were "wormy" and the law prohibited the shooting of almost everything else. But "City hunters," Jerry derided, "from their clothes. They think bluejays and crows are good sport."
That the hunters were looking for birds was evident, for they kept their eyes turned toward the tree-tops. Thus it was that they did not see Jerry crouching in the brush a scant dozen feet from where they broke into the woods again. He was near enough to overhear them perfectly, but not a word could he understand, for they were talking very earnestly together in some outlandish tongue that, as Jerry said, made him seasick to try to follow. But as they talked they pointed excitedly, first toward the sky and then straight ahead, and that part of their conversation was perfectly understandable to the boy.
A sudden wild thought entered his mind. Here were two hunters out in the woods at a time when no real sportsmen carried anything but rods and landing nets. The mystery of their purpose reminded him of another mystery, and immediately his mind connected the two, even before he noticed the constant recurrence of a word that sounded much as a foreigner would pronounce "Lost Island." Jerry realized, even as the thought passed through his mind, that it was the wildest kind of guess, but it was enough to set him stealthily picking his way through the brush in the wake of the two.
He saw, just in time to avoid running smack into them, that just before they reached the road, although now out of the heavier woods, they had stopped and were talking together more excitedly than ever. Something had happened, Jerry realized at once, but he could not puzzle out what it was, although he looked and listened as intently as they seemed to be doing. He was about to give it up in disgust, when he became conscious of a queer droning noise, as of a swarm of bees, or a distant threshing machine. Strangely, the sound did not seem to be coming from the woods or fields about him, but from the blank sky itself.
Then he remembered how Tod had acted at breakfast—how he too, like these men, had been apparently staring into space. Jerry read the newspapers; he was an eager student of one of the scientific magazines; he had sat in Mr. Fulton's basement workshop and listened to many a discussion of the latest wonders of invention. But even then he did not at once realize that the sound he had been hearing really came from the sky, and that the purring noise was the whir of the propellers of an aeroplane.
He looked for a full minute at the soaring speck against the blue sky before he exclaimed aloud. "I'll be darned—an airship!"
Fortunately, the two men were too engaged to pay any attention to sounds right beside them. But Jerry glanced hastily in their direction as he dropped back into the shelter of a big clump of elderberry. Then he looked again. There could be no doubt the two were following the flight of the aeroplane. They stepped off a few feet to the right and Jerry could see only their shoulders and heads above the bushes. He was curious to see better what they were doing, but he dared not cross the open ground between. So instead he turned his attention again to the soaring man-bird.
It was coming closer. It swung down lower and circled in over Lost Island, barely a hundred feet above the tree-tops. A sudden cry from the two men drew his eager eyes away from the approaching aircraft, but he looked back just in time to witness a wonderful sight.
Motionless, poised like a soaring hawk, the aeroplane, its propeller flashing in the sunlight, hung over Lost Island. For fully six seconds it remained there, not moving an inch. Suddenly it lurched, dropped half the distance to the trees, the yellow planes snapping like gun-shots. It looked as if it would be wrecked, and Jerry started forward as if to go to the rescue. In the half instant he had looked away, the machine had righted and purring like an elephant-size pussy, was darting out over the water. A cheer sounded faintly from Lost Island; Jerry wanted to cheer himself.
Now he heard another kind of sound, but this time there was no doubt in his mind as to its source. There could be no mistaking the put- put-put of a single cylinder motor boat. It was coming up Plum Run, probably from the "city"—Chester. He could see it swinging around into the channel from behind Lost Island. It crept close along shore, and with a final "put!" came to a stop just where the boat had landed the night before with Mr. Fulton. Three men crowded forward and jumped to shore; one of them, Jerry could have sworn, was Mr. Fulton himself.
As if the pilot of the aeroplane had been waiting for their coming he circled back toward the island. He had climbed far into the blue, but came down a steep slant that brought him within two hundred feet of earth almost before one could gather his wits to measure the terrific drop. Out across Plum Run he swept in a wide circle, and Jerry saw that the aeroplane would pass almost directly overhead.
He had forgotten all about the two men by this time, so keen was his interest in the daring aviator. He certainly had nerve, to go on with his flight after the accident that had so nearly ended his career only a minute back.
And then Jerry was treated to a sight that made him rub his eyes in amazement. The accident was repeated—it had been no accident. Now only a hundred feet up, directly above him, the big machine seemed to quiver with a sudden increase or change of power. A rasping, ear- racking sound—a spurt of blue vapor—and the aeroplane did what no other flying machine had ever done before; it stopped stock-still in mid-air.
Jerry could see every detail of the big machine, its glistening canvas, its polished aluminum motor and taut wires and braces. He could even see the pilot, leaning far over to one side, a smile of satisfaction on his face. Jerry could hardly resist shouting a word of greeting to the bold aeronaut.
He did shout, but it was a cry of horror, for all in a moment, a streak of flame seemed to leap out of the motor, there was a fearful hiss of escaping gas, a report that fairly shook the tree-tops, and with planes crumpling under the tremendous pressure of the air rushing past as it fell, the aeroplane plunged to earth. Yet, even in his intense excitement, Jerry, as he raced to where the flaming machine had fallen, caught at a fleeting impression: There had been two explosions, and the first seemed to come from close beside him.
The aeroplane had come to earth a good hundred yards away, and Jerry made all speed in that direction. He passed the spot where the two men had been standing—they were still there, and seemed in no hurry to go to the rescue. One of them, Jerry noticed as he rushed by, shouting "Quick!" had just thrown his gun under his arm, but the action did not impress the boy at the time as having any significance.
He raced on, the flaming wreck now in sight. He fairly flew through the last dense thicket and jumped out, just in time to collide with another hurrying figure. When the two picked themselves up, Jerry saw that it was Tod.
"Hurry, Jerry," he cried. "I'm afraid that poor Billings is killed!"
AN EMPTY RIFLE SHELL
In that few steps till they reached the smoking mass of wreckage, many things became clear to Jerry. He realized that Lost Island had been merely a building ground for Mr. Fulton's experiments in aeronautics, that this sorry looking ruin was his invention. He remembered the long, low shed on the island—that was the workshop.
Then they were at the verge of the twisted and wrecked machine, frantically tugging at rods and splintered wood in an effort to get at the unconscious form covered by the debris. Fortunately there was no great weight to lift, and there was really no fire once the smoke of the explosion had cleared away. In a very few seconds they had dragged the man clear and laid him out flat on his back in a grassy spot, where Tod remained to fan the man's face while Jerry hurried toward camp for water. Blackened and bleeding as the man was, Jerry readily recognized him as Billings.
He found Budge startled by the explosion and hesitating about leaving the camp unguarded to go to the rescue. Jerry's shouted command brought him galloping across the field with a pail of water, and the two boys made good speed on the way back. They found the man still unconscious but beginning to writhe about in pain.
"I think his leg's broken," cried Tod, his face white with the strain of helpless waiting. "From the way he doubles up every little bit I think he must be hurt inside. The cuts that are bleeding don't seem to be very bad. Let me have the water."
"Do you suppose we really ought to——" began Jerry, but paused, for Budge had answered his question effectually.
Without a word he stooped over the moaning man. Outer clothes were taken off in a trice. Without jarring the man about, almost without moving him, garment by garment Budge gradually removed, replaced, examined, until every part of the man's anatomy had been looked over. Finally he straightened up, and for the first time the other two, who had stood helplessly by, saw how set and white the young Scout's face was.
"Leg's broken all right," he said slowly. "So's his arm—and at least two ribs. Maybe more. Side's pretty badly torn and I think he's bleeding internally. We've got to get a doctor without a second's loss of time. Tod, you chase along like a good fellow and see how quick you can get to a telephone. Jerry, lend a hand here and we'll fix a splint for his leg—lucky it's fractured below the knee or we'd have a time. I don't know whether I can do anything for his ribs or not. Hustle up, Tod—what you standing there gaping for?"
"Where—where'd you learn to do things like that?" blurted Tod, as he started away.
"What? This?" in surprise. "Every Scout knows how to do simple things like this." And he turned back to his bandaging, for he had brought along the camp kit, with its gauze and cotton. Out came his big jackknife and he cut a thumb-sized willow wand, which he split and trimmed. In less than no time he had snapped the bone back into place and wound a professional looking bandage about the home-made splint. He was just about to turn his attention to the injured side when a great crackling in the brush caused both boys to turn.
Three men came bounding across the open space, the foremost, Mr. Fulton.
"Is he alive?" he exclaimed before he recognized the two boys.
"Yes," answered Jerry, "but he's hurt pretty bad—inside, Budge says. Tod just——"
"Tod! He here? Did he go after a doctor?"
"Here he comes now. Did you get the doctor?" shouted Budge and Jerry together.
"I got his office. It's our own Doctor Burgess. I got Mrs. Burgess and she says the doctor is out this way, and she'll get him by telephone—she can locate him better than I could. He ought to be here most any minute. I'm to watch for him along the road." Tod darted back toward the line of bushes that marked the highway.
But it was a good half hour before a shout proclaimed the coming of the doctor, and in that time Budge had had a chance to show more evidences of his Scout training. After a hurried trip back to camp he fashioned bandages that held the broken ribs in place; he bound the scalp wound neatly, and stopped the flow of blood from an ugly scratch on the man's thigh. The others stood about, helping only as he directed. It was with a wholesome respect that they eyed him when the job was finished.
But it took the doctor to sum their admiration up in one crisp "Bully—couldn't have done it better myself."
He felt about gently and at last straightened up and remarked:
"He's good enough to move, but not very far. Where's the nearest farmhouse?"
"Half a mile, nearly," answered Tod.
"I think he'd want to be taken—home," Mr. Fulton said hesitatingly. "If we could move him to the river bank I guess we could get him across all right—to Lost Island, you know. His daughter's there to nurse him."
"Lost Island?" questioned the doctor, raising his eyebrows. "We-l-l— Son, can you make a stretcher?" turning to Budge.
"Come on, Jerry. Back in a minute," called Budge over his shoulder to the doctor.
Jerry followed to the Scout camp, where Budge caught up a pair of stout saplings that had been cut for tent poles but had not been needed.
"Grab up a couple blankets," he directed, setting off again through the brush on a run. Jerry was well out of breath, having contrived to trip himself twice over the trailing blankets, when he finally rejoined the group. Budge reached out for the blankets and soon had a practical stretcher made, onto which the injured man was gently lifted. Mr. Fulton and one of the strangers took hold each of an end and they set out directly for the bank of Plum Run.
For the first time Jerry had a chance to observe the two who had come with Tod's father. Heavy-set, rather stolid chaps they were, just beginning to show a paunch, and gray about the temples. They looked good-natured enough but gave the impression of being set in their ways, a judgment Jerry had no occasion to change later. They spoke with an odd sort of accent but were evidently used to conversing in English, although the first glance told that they were not Americans.
They were plainly but expensively dressed; they looked like men of wealth rather than like business men. They had come to see Mr. Fulton's invention tried out, Jerry surmised, and, if it proved successful, perhaps to buy it. Those two men he had seen with the rifles were foreigners too, but of a different station in life and, Jerry was sure, belonging under a different flag.
They were soon down to the water's edge, where was moored the launch Jerry had heard chugging over to the island not long before. Blankets were brought from the Scout camp and piled on the launch floor to make a comfortable bed, and poor Billings was carefully lifted from the stretcher and laid in the boat. The doctor and Mr. Fulton got in. The two men remained on the bank. Mr. Fulton looked at them questioningly, but their heavy faces gave no sign. So he asked:
"You will wait for me, I trust! I don't want you to feel that this— accident——" he hesitated over the word—"makes the scheme a failure. There is something about it all that I can't understand, but a close examination may reveal——"
"Ah, yes," answered the shorter of the two, "we will want to be just as sure of the failure as we insisted on being of the success. But you understand of course that we feel—ah—feel considerably—ah— disappointed in the trial flight. Oh, yes, we will wait for you. You will not be long?"
"Just long enough for the doctor to find out what needs to be done. That slim youngster there is my son Tod. He knows almost as much about my—about it as I do. Tod, you take care of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Harris till I come back. You'd best stay close to the Skyrocket; we don't want to take any chances, you know."
All the time he had been talking he had been tinkering with the motor, which was having a little balky spell. At his last words Jerry spoke up hastily:
"I'll chase over and keep an eye on the Skyrocket while the rest of you take your time," and he hurried off, adding to himself: "Skyrocket's a good name, 'cause it sure went up in a blaze of glory, and came down like the burnt stick." But he had other things in mind besides the mere watching of the wreck. At Mr. Fulton's hesitation over the word "accident" a picture had popped into his mind—two men carrying rifles and peering up over the tree-tops.
He was destined to see them again, for as he crossed the road he heard a crackling in the underbrush of someone in hasty retreat. He blamed his thoughtlessness in whistling as he ran along; perhaps he might have caught them red-handed if he had been careful. As it was, he saw the two scurrying toward the south, whereas before they had been going northward.
He did not go directly to the fallen aeroplane. Instead he picked his way carefully over the route the men had followed just after the explosion, stooping low and examining every spear of grass. His search was quickly rewarded. Just where the trampled turf showed that the two men had stood for some time he pounced upon a powder- blackened cartridge, bigger than any rifle shell he had ever seen before, even in his uncle's old Springfield. That was all, but it was enough to confirm his suspicions.
He walked over to the charred and twisted remains of the Skyrocket, fighting down his strong impulse to pry into the thing and see if he could discover the secret of its astounding exploits before the crash came. It did not take more than the most fleeting glance to see, even with his limited knowledge of flying machines, that this one was very much different from the others. He was glad when the others came up to save him from yielding to his curiosity.
Tod and the two men were deep in a discussion of Mr. Fulton's invention, but Jerry gained little by that, as most of the technical terms were so much Greek to him. Tod talked like a young mechanical genius—or a first-class parrot. The two men listened to his glowing praises in no little amusement, venturing a word now and then just to egg the boy on—though he needed none.
Jerry waited for a chance to break in forcibly. "I say, Tod." he interrupted a wild explanation of the theory of the differential, "I expect I'd better chase along back home. I can just catch the interurban if I cut loose now. I—I want to hike back and spread the good news that you aren't decorating a watery grave."
"I s'pose I'll have to stay here and help the Scouts mount guard over the relics here—when will you be back?"
"You can come back with dad. He'll probably come back to Watertown to-night, after he takes these two gentlemen to Chester in the launch. He'll probably want you to help him bring down some repairs."
"You think he'll try to patch up the Skyrocket?" asked Jerry. "Doesn't look hardly worth while."
"Worth while!" exploded Tod. "Is a half million dollars worth while?" Then he repented having spoken out so freely, reminded by the sharp glances of the two men. "Oh, Jerry's all right," he apologized. "Dad thinks as much of him as he does of me."
"Well, I'll be off," said Jerry hurriedly. "Tell your father I'll see him either to-night or early in the morning—and that I've got something important to tell him."
"About the Skyrocket?" demanded Tod eagerly, but Jerry only shook his head teasingly and began to hurry across the fields and woods to the interurban tracks.
He was lucky, for hardly had he reached the road crossing before the familiar whistle sounded down the track. The motorman toot-tooted for him to get off the rails, as this was not a regular stop, but Jerry stood his ground and finally the man relented at the last minute and threw on the brakes.
Watertown reached, Jerry could not hold his good news till he got home, but to every one he met he shouted the glad word that Tod Fulton had been found, alive and uninjured. The open disbelief with which his announcement was met gave him a lot of secret satisfaction. In fact, he could hardly restrain an occasional, "I told you so." His mother was the only one to whom he allowed himself to use that phrase, but then, he had told her.
He could hardly wait until Mr. Fulton should return from Chester, so eager was he to tell of his discovery there in the woods, but the slow day passed, and bedtime came without any sign of a light in the big house down the street. Reluctantly he finally went up to his room, but for a long time he sat with his nose flattened out on the window pane, watching patiently.
At last he was rewarded. Out of the gloom of the Fulton house he saw a tiny point of light spring, followed by a flood of radiance across the lawn.
"What are you doing, son?" came a deep masculine voice from the sitting room. "Thought you had gone to bed hours ago."
"Mr. Fulton just came home, pa, and Tod told me to tell him——"
"Guess it'll keep till morning, won't it? Besides, I expect Tod saw his father later than you did."
"I'll be right back, dad——" this from just outside the kitchen door. "It's just awfully important——"
The door banged to just then. Mr. Ring chuckled. He believed in letting boys alone.
Jerry sped down the dark walk and jabbed vigorously at the special doorbell, hurried a little bit by the fact that as he came through the wide gate he had a feeling that the big gateposts did not cause all the shadow he passed through. "I'm getting nervous since I saw those two men to-day," he reminded himself. "I'll soon be afraid of my own shadow—but I hope it doesn't take to whispering too."
Mr. Fulton came hurrying to the door, a big look of relief on his face when he saw who it was.
"I couldn't wait till morning, Mr. Fulton. I just had to tell you I knew the Skyrocket didn't fall of its own free will. I saw two men skulking in the woods. They both carried big rifles. I was sure I heard one of them go off just before the explosion came, and on the ground where they stood I found this!"
He handed Mr. Fulton the rifle shell.
"Good boy!" exclaimed the man, almost as excited as the youngster. "I'm beginning to see daylight. You keep all this under your hat, sonny, and come over as early in the morning as you can. We'll talk it over then, after I've had a chance to sleep on this." He indicated the cartridge. "Tell me, though—was one of the men a tall, lean chap with a sabre scar on his jaw——"
"They were both heavy-set, scowly looking——" "Hm. That makes it all tangled again. Well, it may look clearer in the morning. Chase along, Jerry; I've got a busy night's work ahead of me. No," he added as Jerry began to speak, "you couldn't help me any. Not to- night. To-morrow you can."
Jerry wanted to tell him about the whispering shadows, but hesitated because it sounded so foolish. His heart skipped a beat or two as he drew near the tall posts, but this time the gateway was as silent as the night about him.
"Some little imaginer I am," he laughed to himself as he skipped back into the house.
THE GAME BEGINS
The sun was not up earlier next morning than Jerry Ring. However, he waited till after breakfast before going over to rouse Mr. Fulton, Who would, he knew, sleep later after his strenuous night's work. He spent the time in an impatient arrangement and rearrangement of his fishing tackle, for he had a feeling in his bones that this visit to Lost Island might be more than a one-day affair.
Mrs. Ring finally appeared on the scene, to tease him over his early rising. "I don't need to look for the fishing tackle when you get up ahead of me; I know it's there."
But Jerry only grinned. His mother was a good pal, who never spoiled any of his fun without having a mighty good reason. Now he saw her setting about fixing up a substantial lunch, and he knew that there would be no coaxing necessary to gain her consent to his trip. He slipped up behind her unawares and kissed her smackingly on the back of the neck—perhaps that was one reason she was such a good pal.
Breakfast over, Jerry caught up his pole and tackle box and hustled down the street. The Fulton house looked silent and deserted, he thought, as he reached up to push the secret button. The loud b-r-r- r echoed hollowly through the big house; Jerry sat down on the step to await the opening of the door, for he figured Mr. Fulton would be slow in waking up. But the minute he had allowed stretched into two, so he reached up and gave the button another vigorous dig. Still there was no response. Puzzled, he held the button down for fully a minute, the bell making enough racket to wake the dead. Vaguely alarmed, Jerry waited. No one came. Putting his mouth to the keyhole, he shouted: "Mr. Fulton—wake up—it's Jerry!"
Then he put his ear against the door and listened for the footsteps he was sure would respond to his call. Silence profound. Again he shouted and listened. And then came a response that set him frantically tugging at the door—his name called, faintly, as if from a great distance.
But the door did not yield. Jerry bethought himself of a lockless window off the back porch roof, which he and Tod had used more than once in time of need. He quickly shinned up the post and swung himself up by means of the tin gutter. In through the window, through the long hall and down the stairway he plunged, instinct taking him toward Mr. Fulton's bedroom-study. The door stood ajar. He pushed it open and looked in. A fearful sight met his eyes.
On the bed, where he lay half undressed on top of the covers, was Mr. Fulton, blood streaming down his battered face. "What has happened?" gasped Jerry, seeing that the man's eyes were open. But there was no answer, and he saw that Mr. Fulton was too dazed to give any account of the events that had left him so befuddled. Jerry got water and bathed and dressed the deep cuts and bruises as best he could. The shock of the cold water restored the man's faculties in some measure and he finally managed a coherent statement.
"It was your two friends, I guess. They broke in on me while I was working downstairs. One stood guard over me while the other ransacked the house. Then, when they couldn't find anything, they tried to force me to tell where my papers were hid. That was when I rebelled, and they pretty near did for me. I put up a pretty good scrap for a while, until one of them got a nasty twist on my arm. I guess the shoulder's dislocated; I can't move it. But I guess I left a few marks myself—that's why they were so rough. But all they got was the satisfaction of beating me up."
"I wish I knew what it was all about," remarked Jerry. "I feel like a fellow at a moving picture show who came in about the middle of the reel. And there's nobody to tell me what happened before."
"I guess there's no harm in telling you—now. You see, Jerry, the big outstanding feature of the war across the water has been the work done by two recent inventions, the submarine and the aeroplane. That set me thinking. The water isn't deep enough around here to do much experimenting with submarines, but there's dead oodles of air. So aeroplanes it had to be. Now, the aircraft have been a distinct disappointment, except as scouting helps, because the high speed of the aeroplanes makes accurate bomb-dropping almost impossible.
"That was my starter. If I could perfect some means of stopping a machine in mid-flight, just long enough to drop a hundred pounds of destruction overboard with a ninety per cent chance of hitting the mark, I had it. Well, I got it. The Skyrocket is the first aeroplane that can stop dead still—or was. I showed my model to the proper government officials, but even after I had cut my way through endless red tape I found only a cold ear and no welcome at all. I think the official I talked to had a pet invention of his own.
"At any rate I was plumb disgusted. I finally took my idea to the business agent of a foreign power—and the reception I got almost took me off my feet. Meet me halfway! They pretty near hounded me to death till I finally consented to give them an option on the thing, But then my troubles began. The man who had made the deal with me had to step aside for a couple of old fogies who can't grasp anything they can't see or handle. I was about disgusted, when a friend introduced me to a friend of his, who hinted that there were other markets where the pay was better. The upshot of it was that I gave this man—as agent of course for his government—a second option on the invention to hold good if no deal was made with the first party before August first, when option number one expires.
"Mr. Lewis and Mr. Harris represent—well, the name of the country doesn't make any difference, but they hold the first option. They are cautious; they won't buy unless they can see a complete machine that works perfectly. The others are willing to buy the idea outright, just as it stands.
"Of course I have no proof that the two men you saw—and they are the same I am sure as the two who burglarized me—have anything to do with my invention, but I'd venture a guess that their aim is to prevent my being able to demonstrate my machine before August first. What do you think?"
"I think we'd better be getting busy."
"There's nothing to do. Of course, I don't lose any money by it—I gain some. But I hate to sell my idea to a gang of cutthroats and thieves. I resent being black-handed into a thing like that. But with Billings laid out, the Skyrocket wrecked and myself all binged up, there's little chance. I suppose I could get a lot of mechanics and turn out a new plane in time, but I don't know where I could get men I could trust. Like as not those two villains, or their employer, would manage to get at least one of their crew into the camp, and there'd be a real tragedy before we got through."
"I tell you what," suggested Jerry. "If you feel strong enough to manage it, you come over to the house and let ma get you some breakfast. Then you'll feel a little more hopeful—ma's breakfasts always work that way," he said loyally. "There is bound to be a way out of this mix-up, and we'll find it or know the reason why."
Over a savory pile of pancakes Mr. Fulton did grow more hopeful, especially when Jerry began to outline a scheme that had been growing in his mind. He began by asking questions.
"Do you have to have such skilled mechanics to make those repairs?"
"Well, no, not as long as I have skilled eyes to oversee the job. A good deal of it is just dub work. Most anybody could do it if he was told how. I could do the directing easy enough; but I'm not left- handed. However, I'll chase downtown and let Doc Burgess look me over; maybe my shoulder isn't as bad as it feels. But I'm afraid my right arm is out of the fight for at least a couple of weeks—and there's just two weeks between now and August first. I'd not be much good except as a boss, and a boss isn't much good without somebody to stand over. So there you are, right back where we started."
"Not on your life! We're a mile ahead, and almost out of the woods. If you can boss dubs, and get anything out of them, why I know where you can get at least nine of them, and they're all to be trusted— absolutely."
"Tod could help a lot, and I suppose you are one of the dubs, but where are the rest?"
"Phil Fulton and his Boy Scouts——"
"My nephew, you mean, from Chester? I suppose I could get him, but just what are these Boy Scouts?"
"You've been so interested in your experiments that you don't know what the rest of the world is doing. Never heard of the Boy Scouts?" Jerry, secure in his own recent knowledge, was openly scornful.
"Oh, yes, now that you remind me, I do remember of reading about some red-blooded boy organization—a little too vigorous for chaps like you and Tod, eh?" he teased.
"You'll see what happens before the summer is ended. But that isn't helping us out any, now. Phil's patrol is down there with Tod right this minute, and I bet you they know a thing or two about mechanics. That seems to be their specialty—knowing something about most everything. I'm mighty sure that if you tell us what to do, we can do it. We may not know a lot about the why of it, but we're strong on following instructions."
"I'd be willing to take a chance on you fellows if it wasn't for the time. The Skyrocket's a complete wreck. It took Billings a good many times two weeks to build her up in the first place——"
"But you're not losing anything. The boys would be tickled to death to tackle it, and if we do lose out finally, why we've lost nothing but the time. It's like a big game——"
"Yes," observed Mr. Fulton dryly. "A big game, with the handicaps all against us. If we win, we lose money, and we have the pleasant chance of getting knocked over the head most any night."
"But that isn't the idea. A set of foreigners are trying to force some free-born Americans to do something we don't want to do. Are we going to let them?"
"Not by a jugfull!" exclaimed Mr. Fulton, getting up painfully from his chair. "I'll go on down to the doctor—I expect I should have first thing, before I started to stiffen up. You go ahead to Lost Island, and see what can be done toward picking up the pieces and taking the Skyrocket over to the island. If there are enough unbroken pieces we may have a chance. I'll be along by noon."
He hobbled down the street and Jerry, after telling his mother what had happened, and getting reluctant consent to his extended absence, gathered together a few necessaries and made all speed for the interurban. There was no temptation to go to sleep this time, for his thoughts were racing madly ahead to the exciting plan to beat the schemers who had wrecked the Skyrocket. At the same time he was conscious of a disappointed feeling in his heart; why could it not have been the United States that had bought the invention? That would have made the fight really worth while. For, to tell the truth, the two unenthusiastic owners of the first option did not appeal to him much more than did the others.
He found the whole Boy Scout crew gathered about the Skyrocket, having given up a perfectly wonderful fishing trip to guard the airship. Jerry quickly told the story of the morning's events to Phil, interrupted at every other sentence by the rest of the excited Scouts. The whole affair appealed to their imaginations, and when he came to the proposition he had made Mr. Fulton, there was no doubt of their backing up his offer.
"Let's get busy!" shouted Dick Garrett, Assistant Patrol Leader. "We ought to be all ready to move across by the time Mr. Fulton gets here."
And he started toward the wreck as if to tear the thing apart with his bare hands and carry it piecemeal to the banks of the Plum.
"We won't get far, that way, Dick," observed Phil. "First of all we want a plan of action. And before that, we need to investigate, to see just how much damage has been done and how big the pieces are going to be that we'll have to carry."
"But we don't know the first thing about how the contraption works," objected Dick, somewhat to Jerry's satisfaction, for there was a little jealous thought in his heart that Phil would naturally try to take away from him the leadership in the plan. But Phil soon set his mind at rest.
"We don't need to know how it works. All we need to know is whether we have to break it apart or if we can carry it down mostly in one piece. First, though, we've got to organize ourselves. Jerry's the boss of this gang, and as Patrol Leader I propose to be straw-boss. Anybody got any objections? No? Well, then, Boss Jerry, what's orders?"
Much pleased, Jerry thought over plans. A workable one quickly came to him. "First of all we'll follow out your idea, Phil. Let's all get around it and see if we can lift it all together. Dave, you catch hold of that rod sticking out in front of you—it won't bite. Give him a hand, Budge. All right, everybody! Raise her easy—so."
To their unbounded relief, nearly all the aeroplane rose together. One plane, it is true, gave one final c-c-r-rack! as the last whole rod on that side gave way; but the rest, twisted all out of shape and creaking and groaning, held together in one distorted mass.
"All right," commanded Jerry; "let her down again—easy, now. That's the ticket. Now, Frank—the two Franks—you scout ahead and pick us out a clear trail to the water. You'll have to figure on a good twenty-foot clearance.
"I guess we might as well finish the work you young Sandows started. I see that the right plane—or wing or whatever you call it—is just as good as gone. We'll cut her away and that'll give us a better carrying chance."
"Why not take her all apart while we're at it, Jerry?" suggested Phil. "We'll have to anyway to get her over to the island."
"Just leave it to me and we won't. I've got a little scheme. Who's got a heavy knife with a sharp big blade in it?"
"That's part of our Scout equipment," answered Phil proudly. "Come on, Scouts, the boss says whack away the right wing."
"Wing?" grunted Fred Nelson, hacking vainly at the tough wood. "Feels more like a drumstick to me!" Although the rods were splintered badly they did not yield readily to the knives. The two trail scouts returned long before the task of clearing away the plane was finished.
"There's a fairly easy way if we go around that hazel thicket and make for the road about a hundred yards south of here, then come back along the road to that cut-over piece by the little creek, go in through there to the river trail, and along that, south again, till we come just about straight across from here," reported the two.
"All right. Now one of you stay here and mount guard over the left- behinds, while the other goes ahead and shows us the way. How's the knife brigade coming on?"
"Ready any time you are. What's next?"
"Line up on each side the stick of the Skyrocket, and we'll pick her up and tote her to the beach. Back here, Dave, you and Barney; we need more around the motor—it weighs sixteen ounces to the pound. All set now? Right-o—pick her up. Lead ahead, Frank."
The unwieldy load swayed and threatened to buckle, and more than once they had to set it down and find new holds, but the winding road picked out by Frank Ellery was followed without any serious mishap, until at last they stood on the high bank overlooking the wide stretch of sandy beach beyond which Plum Run rippled along in the sunshine.
"Set her down—gently, now," ordered Jerry. "We'll let her rest here while we bring up our reinforcements—and the rest of our baggage. Phil, you take three Scouts and go back and bring in the wings. Leave Frank there until you've gathered up every last scrap. The rest of us will stay here to figure out some way of getting our plunder shipped safely across to Lost Island."
"Go to it!" urged Phil mockingly. "You've got some job ahead of you. You figure out how a rowboat's going to float that load across—and let me know about it."
"Yes," challenged a new voice, "you do that, and let me know about it too."
Mr. Fulton had stepped unobserved through the border of trees and brush lining the river path.
"Huh!" bragged Jerry. "If that was the hardest thing we had to do, we could use the Skyrocket for a fireworks celebration to-night!"
PATCHING THE "SKYROCKET"
But Jerry gave no explanation of the method he intended to use in transporting the unwieldy bulk across the narrow stretch of water. While Phil and his helpers disappeared, to bring up the rest of the aeroplane framework, he set his crew to work. The Scout camp, which was something like a hundred feet north, yielded a couple of trappers' axes; with these he soon had two stout saplings cut and trimmed to an even length of thirty feet. In the larger end of each he cut a deep notch, while to the smaller ends he nailed a good- sized block, the nails found in an emergency locker on the Big Four, both it and the Boy Scout boat having been brought down and hauled up on the beach.
The two boats were now laid side by side, twenty odd feet apart. Across the bows he laid the one sapling, across the sterns, the other, so that blocks and notches fitted down over the far edges of the boats. Mr. Fulton at once caught Jerry's idea and nodded his head approvingly.
"All right," he said, "if the saplings will hold up the weight."
"They don't need to," explained Jerry. "The Skyrocket will reach over to the inner edges of the boats; I measured the distance with my eye. All the sticks do is to hold the two ships together."
Phil's crew made two trips, on the second one bringing in Frank, who had wrapped up a weird collection of broken-off parts in a piece of varnish-stiffened silk torn from one of the planes,
It did not take long to load the "body" of the Skyrocket onto the saplings, the boats being still on shore. Then, all pushing steadily, the strange double craft was slowly forced across the sand and into the shallow shore-water of Plum Bun. Both boats settled dangerously near to the point of shipping water, so it was fortunate that the river was as calm as a millpond. At that, there was no hope that anyone could get in to row the boats.
"Strip for action!" shouted Phil. "The boss says we're to swim across. Likewise, the last one in's a rotten egg."
The splashing that ensued, as ten youngsters plunged in, almost in a body, nearly swamped the boats. After his first shout of alarm, Mr. Fulton waved his hand gayly and shouted:
"Go to it, fellows. If the doctor didn't have my arm in a splint I'd be right with you."
"All right, Scouts," assented Jerry, "but go mighty easy."
They were all good swimmers, and with hardly a ripple they propelled the Skyrocket slowly but steadily toward the shore of Lost Island. As they drew near they saw that they had spectators on both sides, for awaiting them was the girl Phil and Jerry had seen not so long before, but under different circumstances. Now she waved her hand encouragingly.
"Oh, Liz-z-i-e!" shouted Phil, "where's the meat-axe?"
For answer she caught up a pebble and sent it skimming in his direction, so close that Phil felt no shame in ducking, even if it did bring a great shout of laughter from his companions.
But it was evident that "Lizzie" or Elizabeth Billings, as they soon came to call her, bore no ill will as she came down to the water's edge and awaited their coming. But the boys had no intention of making a landing so long as she was there, and Jerry was turning over in his mind just how to ask her to withdraw, when she apparently came to the conclusion that her presence was neither needed nor desired. At any rate, she left the beach abruptly and disappeared along the island path, only stopping to send a hearty peal of laughter in their direction.
"Next time across I guess well wear our clothes," snickered Budge. "The young lady isn't used to welcoming savages to her lonely isle."
"Try a little of your savage strength on that rod you're leaning on; nobody suggested that this affair was a lawn party," Phil reminded him. "Come on, fellows, let's get the old Skyrocket up out of the damp."
After some maneuvering they decided to unload from the water, as the beach shelved gradually. Within five minutes they were ready to make for the other shore, being compelled to swim the boats back again, as no one had remembered to throw in the oars.
This time their load was hardly worth calling one so far as weight was concerned, and four of the boys piled in, to row the boats across, nearly capsizing the whole arrangement in their efforts to outspeed each other. This time they were fully dressed. One of the boys brought the two boats back, and now all the party crossed over, with the exception of poor Budge, who again was the one slated to stay behind and guard camp. Perhaps his disappointment was only half genuine, however, as he was none too keen about the heavy job of freighting the wreckage to the center of Lost Island.
Tod was awaiting them when the last boatload beached on the island. It was easy to see that he had been greatly worried over the nonappearance of his father, and the bandages in which Mr. Fulton was literally swathed were not calculated to set his mind at ease. But Mr. Fulton's laughing version of the "accident," as he called it, soon relieved Tod's fears.
They made short work of the trip to the long, low shed Phil and Jerry had seen on their exploration of the island, and which they now learned was a "hangar," a place specially fitted for taking care of the aeroplane. When the big sliding door was thrown open the boys saw that inside was a complete machine shop, with lathes, benches, drills and punches, the whole being operated by power from the gasoline engine in the corner.
"The first thing to do," announced Mr. Fulton, "is to understand just what we're driving at. So I'll explain, as briefly as possible, just what this contraption of mine is. It's simply a device that enables me to reverse the propellers instantly at high speed. But that isn't all. The same lever throws in another set of propellers— lifters, we call them—just above where the pilot sits. They act as a kind of counterbalance. Now these planes, or wings, act in the same manner as the surfaces of a box kite, and aside from this device of mine, which has some details you won't need to know about, and a slight improvement I've made in the motor itself, the Skyrocket isn't any different from the ordinary biplane, which you all know about, of course."
"Of course we don't," blurted Jerry.
"Of course we do," exclaimed Phil. "There isn't one of the Flying Eagles who hasn't made half a dozen model flying machines, and Barney here won a prize with a glider he made last spring in the manual training department of the high school. But we've all studied up about aeroplanes—that's why we call ourselves the Flying Eagles."
"Another reason," chuckled Mr. Fulton, "why there ought to be a bunch of Boy Scouts in Watertown. How about it, Jerry?"
"Leave it to us. We'll challenge you Eagles to a tournament next summer, and you'd better brush up your scouting if you don't want to come off second best. Is that a go, Tod?"
"That's two go's—one for each of us."
"Well," suggested Mr. Fulton, "those of you who don't know the first principles of flying go into the second squad. You go to the office— that's the railed off space yonder—where you'll find plenty of books for your instruction. As soon as I get gang number one properly started I'll come back and give you a course of sprouts."
Jerry and Dave and Frank went to the "office," from where they heard Mr. Fulton putting Tod in charge of one group, while he took the rest under his personal direction.
"First off," he advised, "we'll take the Skyrocket all apart. All the broken or strained parts we'll throw over here in this box. Anything that's too big we'll pile neatly on the floor. I want to know as soon as possible just what I'll have to get from the city. I can call on the blacksmith shop at Watertown for some of the hardest welding, and Job Western did most of the carpentering in the first place, so I know where to go for my trusses and girders. Examine every bolt and nut—nothing is to be used that shows the slightest strain or defect.
"Phil, you and I will tackle the motor. If she isn't smashed, half the battle's won."
Jerry sat back in the corner awhile, trying his best to get something definite out of the great array of books he found on a low shelf. Looking up and seeing Mr. Fulton's eyes on him, a twinkle in their depths, he threw down the latest collection of algebraic formulas and walked over.
"I guess I know enough about aeroplanes to unscrew nuts and nip wires. You can explain the theory of it to us after working hours."
So, with monkey wrench, pliers, hammers and screwdriver, he set about making himself as busy as any of the others—and as greasy.
Dark came on them before they had made enough headway to be noticeable. The boys were glad to see the shadows creeping along, for, truth to tell, they were all thoroughly tired and not a little hungry. Not a bite had any of them eaten since breakfast.
"Hope Budge has taken it upon himself to hash together a few eats," sighed Phil. "I feel hungry enough to tackle my boots."
"Eats?" exclaimed Mr. Fulton in surprise. "You don't mean to tell me that you're hungry?"
"Oh, no, not hungry. Just plain starved," clamored the whole outfit.
"Good. One of you go over and get your guard, and we'll see what those mysterious signals mean that Miss Elizabeth has been making this past half hour. She told me she'd cook us a dinner—if we could stand domestic science grub. This is the first time she ever kept real house. Let's wash up."