Roy was wide awake in an instant. He sat up staring wildly about, and then, casting sleep from him, he listened intently.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
The three raps came against the back wall of the shack, and then:
"Missee all ledee. Man who watchee you him go sleep. Me got ponies, water, eblyting. Make um number one quick."
With quick, beating pulses the brother and sister slipped from the door and out into the valley. It was moonlight-that is to say, the moon had risen, but a peculiar haze overcast the sky and the light of the luminary of the night only served to make the darkness more visible. Back of the shack stood a vague figure holding two ponies by the bridles. It was Ah Sing.
"You give me lilly joss now, missee?" he asked eagerly.
Swiftly Peggy stooped and unfastened the little jade god from far-off China.
"Here, Sing," she said simply, "and thank you."
The Chinaman bowed low three times before he took the precious symbol into his keeping. He slipped it inside his loose blouse.
"All ledee now," he said, holding a stirrup for Peggy to mount.
"But how will you explain it? Won't they kill you when they find the ponies are gone?" asked Roy.
The Oriental laughed the throaty, mirthless chuckle of his race.
"I tellee them you steal them," he said; "they no thinkee Ali Sing hab good sense enough to help you. All litee now. Good bye."
Before they were thoroughly aware of it, so swiftly had the actual escape happened, Peggy and Roy found themselves moving out of the valley on their desperate dash for freedom. The ponies went silently as wraiths. The astute Ah Sing had bundled their feet in sacks so that they made no more noise than cats.
In the faint light they could perceive the gateway of the little valley, and in a short time they had passed it and were beginning to traverse the gloomy stretches beyond. Suddenly there came a sound that sent every drop of blood in their bodies flying to their hearts, and then set it to coursing wildly through their veins again.
The report, coming from behind them, cut the stillness of the night like a scimitar of sound.
"A pistol!" exclaimed Roy. "They've discovered our escape."
Peggy shuddered. Bending forward at the risk of the noise of their flight being heard, they began to urge their ponies faster. Behind them was pandemonium. Shouts, cries and shots mingled in a babel of sound.
"The kids hev got away!" That cry sounded above all the others, and then, with sinister meaning, came another shout:
"Saddle up and git arter 'em. Get 'em, dead or alive!"
Sounds of galloping followed this order, and then came the shrill voice of Ah Sing:
"Me see um. Me see um. They go that way! Over there! Over the hills!"
"Good for Ah Sing," breathed Roy; "he has thrown them off the track. He's told them we went the other way. Come on, sis; now's our time to make speed before they discover their mistake."
The two fugitives urged their ponies unmercifully over the shale. Fortunately, in the rarefied air of the desert, the nights are comparatively cool, and the tough little broncos sped along at a good gait without showing signs of distress. But it was a cruel race across the floor of the desolate valley, and when they e merged on to the comparatively easy going of the foothills of the barren range, the ponies were fain to slack up and draw long heaving breaths.
"Poor little creatures," cried Peggy; "you've got a long way to go yet."
By the moon, which showed through the haze in a sort of luminous patch, Roy gauged the way. Peggy's observations, too, made on the journey into the valley, helped. They kept the pinnacled steeps of the barren hills to their right and pressed forward among the undulating foothills. They had been traveling thus for perhaps an hour-pausing now and then to listen for sounds of pursuit when Roy suddenly became sensible of a change in the atmosphere. It grew warm and close and almost sticky. A puff of hot wind breathed up in their faces and went screaming off among the mysterious clefts and canyons above.
"Are we going to have a storm?" wondered Peggy.
"Don't know, sis, but the weather looks ominous. I don't like that wind. We must make more speed."
"I hate to drive these poor ponies any faster," protested Peggy
"But we must, sis. They'll have a good long rest when this is over. Come on."
So saying Roy brought down his quirt—the long raw-hide whip used in the West—over the heaving flanks of his pony. The little animal gamely responded and plunged forward at a quick lope. Peggy, perforce, followed suit, although it made her heart ache to press the animals at such a gait.
On and on they rode, while the weather every moment grew more peculiar. From the floor of the desert great dust-devils of white alkali arose and swirled solemnly across the wastes. In the semi-darkness they looked like gaunt ghosts. Peggy shuddered. It was like a nightmare. Once or twice she even pinched herself to see if she were awake.
The night, from being cool, had now become blisteringly hot. The wind was like the fiery exhalations of a blast furnace. Grains of sand caught up by it drove stingingly against their faces. Each grain cut into the flesh, smarting sharply.
"We must keep on."
It was Roy's voice, coming after a long silence.
Peggy answered with a monosyllable. A short distance further on they dismounted and allayed their thirst from the kegs Ah Sing had fastened to each saddle, and. then, although their supply was precious, they had to yield to the whinnied entreaties of the ponies. Into a small tin bucket each young rider emptied a modicum of the water and let the little animals drink. It seemed to refresh them—mere mouthful that it was—for they pressed on with more spirit after that.
But there was no denying the fact that something serious was at hand. From desultory puff s the wind had now increased to a steady blow, which drove a stinging hail of sand all about them blindingly. Eddies of hot wind caught up larger grains and dried cactus stems and drove them in terrestrial water spouts across the face of the desert. The moon was quite obscured now, and it was as black as a country church at midnight.
All at once Peggy's pony sank down, and with a long sigh stretched itself out upon the alkali. Roy's almost immediately did the same. As they did so the wind came more furiously. Half blinded and with nostrils, eyes and mouths full of sand particles, the two young travelers reeled about in the darkness. Suddenly what it all meant burst upon Roy with the suddenness of a thunder clap.
"It's a sand storm, Peggy," he cried.
A puff of wind caught up his words and scattered them over the desert.
The words sent a chill to Peggy's heart. She had heard Mr. Bell tell of the sand storms of the Big Alkali—how sometimes they last for days, blotting out trails and burying those unfortunate enough to be caught in them.
"Get your saddle off and keep your head under it," shouted Roy, recalling what he had heard Mr. Bell say of the only way to weather such disturbances.
Peggy, half dead with horror, did as she was told. By the time the work of unsaddling had been accomplished the wind was driving furiously. It was impossible to hear unless the words were shouted. The ponies, who had obeyed their first instinct at the initial warning of what was to come, turned their backs to the storm and laid out straight, with their noses to the ground. Roy and Peggy drew the big flapped Mexican saddles over their heads. Under this protection they were sheltered from the cruel fury of the wind-driven sand and brush.
It was suffocating under the saddle, but when Peggy protruded her face for even a breath of the superheated air, she quickly withdrew it. The wind was now a tornado in violence, and the sand stung like countless needles. Conversation was, of course, impossible, and they lay in silence while the suffocating gale screamed about them.
Once or twice Peggy had to scrape away the sand from the front of the saddle. She could feel it rising all about her. With the sensation came a terrifying thought. She had heard Mr. Bell tell of men whose bones had been buried in the sand only to be exposed long afterward, white and bleached, when the wind-formed sand dunes had shifted and exposed them.
All at once, above the wind and the steady roar of the furiously driven sand and alkali, Peggy thought she heard a wild screech or cry. It sounded like nothing human in its uncanny shrillness. Brave girl as she was, Peggy shuddered hysterically. Could she be losing her mind in the whirling confusion and elemental fury that waged all about her?
THE PROFESSOR AGAIN
The evening before the sand storm, a red wagon had been crawling over the alkali toward the barren hills. It was the eccentric vehicle affected by Professor Wandering William, and was headed for the barren range of hills in which lay the valley of the outlaws.
Professor Wandering William, silently smoking, kept his keen eyes steadily fixed upon the distant hills as he drove, although from time to time he scanned the sky anxiously.
"Going to be a sandstorm sure," he grunted. "Well, if I can make the lee of those hills by sundown I reckon I'll be all right. Too bad though. It'll give that precious outfit a chance to put a still further gap between themselves and me—phew! but it's hot!"
The professor took off his big sombrero and placed it behind him in the wagon. He seemed to think a minute and then muttered:
"Oh, well, I guess it's no harm. Nobody to see but a few old buzzards anyhow, and they won't tell."
The professor, having concluded these self-addressed remarks, did a strange thing. He raised his hands to his head and the next instant his luxuriant long hair had vanished, revealing a close-cropped head of dark hair. This done, he removed his goatee with the same ease, and was revealed as a good-looking, forceful-faced young man of perhaps thirty-two or so.
"Ah-h-h-h!" he breathed with intense satisfaction, "that's a whole heap better. However, I guess the time's coming pretty quick when I can do without this make-up altogether. I shan't be sorry either. Git up!"
This last remark was addressed to the motive power of his jaunty red wagon. In obedience the wheels began to revolve faster. But press onward as he would, supper-time found the professor—so strangely shorn—still some distance from the hills.
"That storm's coming right up, too," he said to himself over his after-supper pipe; "well, no help for it. I guess we'll have to push on."
Watering his animals from a bucket previously filled at the spigot of a big water keg built into his wagon the professor hitched up and pressed on to his destination. Darkness came on, but still he drove steadily forward, seeking the shelter he knew he could find in the lee of the barren hills.
"Going to be a hummer and no mistake," he commented half aloud; "good thing-it-didn't catch me out in the middle of the alkali or Red Bill and his cronies might have had a new lease of life."
It was close upon midnight when the professor found a spot to his liking, and by that time the first desultory puffs of the coming storm were sighing in the nooks and crannies of the barren hills. He tethered his team, gave them their hay in the shelter of the wagon, watered them and then, after a good-night pipe, prepared to turn in. He woke from a troubled doze to find the wind rocking the wagon within which he slept.
"Wonder what kind of weather the ponies are making of it?" he muttered, and rising he opened the canvas flaps at the front of the wagon and peered out.
At that instant he saw, or thought he saw, two dark objects move by in the flying smother of sand. But the next moment he told himself it must have been imagination.
"Guess being alone so much is getting on my nerve," he commented.
Having seen that his stock were lying down and turning their backs on the flying drift, Wandering William, as he called himself, retired once more. But he couldn't sleep for thinking of the strange illusion he had had.
"No, it wasn't an illusion either," he said stoutly to himself the next instant. "I'm prepared to swear that I really did see two figures on horseback, though what, in great ginger cookies, they were doing out in this I don't know. Appears to me though that they must have had to call a halt right around here some place. In that case I'm going to give 'em a hail, an' if they answer it invite 'em into the wagon. This is no weather to be out without an umbrella."
Chuckling a little at his joke, Wandering William arose and went once more to the front of his wagon.
Placing his hands to his mouth, funnel-wise, he sent a long, shrill cry vibrating out through the storm. Another and another he gave till he was hoarse, but there was no reply.
"Guess I was dreaming after all," remarked Wandering William retiring once more to his blanket.
A sickly yellow light struggling through the sand-laden air heralded the day. But the wind had died down and the particles still held in suspension were rapidly thinning out of the air.
Roy thrust his head from under his saddle like a turtle from its shell.
His lips were dry and cracked, his eyes smarted, his skin was irritated with the sand. The whole world seemed to have turned to sand. It was everywhere.
A similar turtle-like head projected from the other saddle. Poor Peggy, she would positively have screamed if she had known the appearance she presented. Her hair was tousled, her eyes red with irritation of the sand, and her lips dry and cracked like Roy's.
"Is—is it all over, Roy?" she asked a bit quaveringly.
"I think so. The wind has died down, and look, the ponies have gotten to their feet. I guess they know."
"Wasn't it awful. I never thought we should live through it."
"Nor did I. But there's one good thing, it has obscured our tracks. If any of Red Bill's gang tried to follow us now they'd have a lot of trouble."
"That's so," agreed Peggy, and then went on to tell Roy of the terrifying screeches and yells she had heard in the night.
"Nothing but the wind," opined Roy, with boy-like superiority. But the next instant it was his turn to start amazedly. Through the fog-like gloom that still overhung the desert a figure was making its way toward them. Roy's hand flew to the revolver with which the thoughtful Ah Sing had provided his saddle holster.
At the same instant the figure, seemingly that of a young man, turned, and wheeling quickly, ran backward and was swallowed up in the obscurity.
"Was that one of Red Bill's men?" gasped Peggy.
"Impossible. They could not have traveled through that storm. But who can it be?"
"What did he run like that for?"
"I'm going after him to find out," declared Roy pluckily; "maybe it's somebody who has become crazed from the sandstorm."
"Oh, Roy, a lunatic!"
Peggy clasped her hands. But the next instant a fresh surprise greeted them. A tall figure with flowing gray locks and gray goatee, topped off with a big sombrero, was seen approaching from the same direction as that in which the youthful figure had vanished.
"Wandering William!" exclaimed the two young adventurers in one breath.
"Yes, Wandering William. The precise individual," was the rejoinder; "and just in time to invite you to breakfast. There, there, no explanations now. You both resemble the output of a threshing machine. But I have mirrors, soap, towels and water in my wagon. Come along, and if you feel ailing, for the insignificant sum of one dollar I will sell you a bottle of Wandering William's Wonderful Wonder Worker."
Exhausted as both boy and girl felt, they could hardly maintain their gravity in the face of this eccentric individual. The very suddenness and utter unexpectedness of his appearance seemed of a piece with his other odd actions. But suddenly Roy recollected the figure that had appeared and then vanished.
"I'd like to accept," said Roy, with vast cunning as he thought, "but what would your partner say?"
"My partner?" Wandering William looked frankly puzzled.
"Yes. That young chap who came toward us and then disappeared again when I came at him with a gun. Not that I blame him," Roy broke off with a laugh, "but I thought for a moment it was one of Red Bill's gang."
Wandering William's keen gray eyes narrowed into two little slits.
"What's that you're saying, boy," he exclaimed; "what do you know about Red Bill Summers?"
"A good deal too much for our comfort," exclaimed Roy, and then he rapidly sketched events of the last twenty-four hours as the trio walked toward Wandering William's wagon.
The strange vendor of medicine seemed to be deeply interested, although he confined his comments to "ums" and "ahs."
"But about that other man," said Roy, returning to the charge when he had finished his narrative, "didn't you see him?"
"My dear boy," said Wandering William seriously, "I think you had better invest in a bottle of Wandering William's Wonder Working Witch Oil for tired and shattered nerves. There is no one in the vicinity but our three selves."
Boy and girl stared at him blankly.
"But I saw him, too," said Peggy.
"I dare say, I dare say," and Wandering William patted his luxuriant curls; "you had a night of strain. What you need is breakfast—hot coffee and all that. Now go in and get fixed up while I attend to your ponies, or rather, Red Bill's."
The wind had by this time died down, and the sun struggled out through the clearing air. Nobody was in sight but themselves, and fain to believe that their sand-sore eyes must have played them a trick, the boy and girl proceeded to "fix up" in Wandering William's really comfortably appointed wagon.
In the meantime one weight had been lifted from Peggy's mind. Wandering William had explained that it was he who had uttered the shouts and yells which had so alarmed her in the night.
"If only it wasn't for that man whom I'm certain I saw," thought Peggy as she combed the sand out of her hair, "I should feel quite relieved, but as it is—Roy, are you still certain you saw that man—the one you pointed the revolver at I mean?"
Roy looked dubious.
"I—don't know," he confessed.
"Oh, Roy Prescott," snapped Peggy, "I—I'd like to shake you."
OUT OF THE DESERT MAZE
Twilight was descending on the camp in the arroyo when Jimsy, who had been stationed with a rifle on a butte overlooking the desert maze, gave a sudden shout. The next instant his rifle was at his shoulder and he began shooting into the air as fast as he could. As the rapid staccato volley of sound rattled forth all became excitement in the arroyo.
The volley had been the signal agreed upon in case the young sentry caught sight of the missing ones. It came after a wearing night and a still more harrowing day. Following the non-arrival of Peggy and Roy in camp from their hunting excursion a search had at once been commenced, of course without result.
An ascent had even been made in one of the monoplanes, but even a bird's-eye view of the surrounding country failed to discover their whereabouts. Then came the sandstorm, and hope that the missing ones could have weathered it was almost given up. Nevertheless, James Bell, in whom hope died hard, had set Jimsy as sentinel on the lofty butte in the wild hope that after all the castaways might turn up.
And now, as the agreed signal rang out, there was a great outpouring from the camp. Aunt Sally, pale and red-eyed from weeping, Mr. Bell, with deep lines of anxiety scoring his face, Jess, troubled and anxious looking, and old Peter Bell, the former hermit, bearing an expression of mild bewilderment. Last of all came Alverado, the Mexican flotsam of the desert. His inscrutable countenance bore no sign of the suffering he had gone through at the thought that harm had come to his worshipped senorita, but in his heart the Mexican had suffered as much as the rest. He had arrived in camp with the stock the evening before, and had, with difficulty, been restrained from setting forth at once on a search.
"Look!" cried Jimsy pointing as the others rushed up.
They followed the direction of his finger and saw slowly crawling toward the arroyo a red wagon, dust-covered and travel-stained.
In front of it were two young figures on horseback, waving frantically. As the volley rattled out they urged their little horses forward on a dash for the arroyo.
"Thank God!" breathed Mr. Bell huskily.
Aunt Sally fell into Jess's young arms and wept lustily while old Bell broke into a rhapsody:
"Out from the desert safe and sound; Hooray! our boy and girl are found!"
But nobody paid any attention to his verses, either to laugh or admire just then. After the cruel anxiety of the past hours the relief was too great for any of them to trust themselves to speak.
But as Peggy and Roy—for of course our readers have guessed it was they—drew closer and their dust-covered features could be plainly seen, a great shout went up from the butte. And in it mingled the voice of Alverado, the unemotional.
The girl and boy were fairly lifted from their ponies and carried in triumph into the camp.
"Dig down into the stores," ordered Mr. Bell, "Get out all the delicacies we have been savin' for a big occasion."
"We'll never have a bigger one than this," declared Jimsy; "tell us all about it, Roy."
"Oh, Peggy, you darling, is it really you?" cried Jess for the 'steenth time, with brimming eyes.
As for old Mr. Bell, as Jimsy observed afterwards, "he just wrapped poetical circles round himself. You couldn't see him for rhythm."
The voice came suddenly from the shadows. It was Wandering William. In the general excitement everybody had forgotten him, and he, had driven up in his red wagon unheralded. But the warmth of his reception made up for any temporary slight. In fact, after supper, when Roy related their strange adventures, and told how, if it had not been for Wandering William, they might never have reached the camp, Wandering William's greeting reached an ovation.
But while all this was going on one figure had remained crouched in the circle of firelight—or, rather, just beyond it—whose dark eyes had not for an instant left the face of Wandering William. The interested observer was Alverado.
The Mexican puckered his brow as be gazed as if trying to recall something. But the effort seemed to be in vain, for at length he arose and, unnoticed, strode moodily off toward the ponies, which had been tethered high on the hillside and out of sight of the camp.
He was gone but a few minutes before he came bounding back into the camp.
"The ponies! The ponies are gone!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
In an instant everybody but Aunt Sally and old Mr. Bell was upon his or her feet.
"Gone!" The exclamation came like a dismayed groan.
"Yes, gone! Every one of them! The lariats have been cut. Ah, the ladrone, the cursed thieves! The—"
"Some of Red Bill's work, for a million!"
The exclamation fell sharp and clear from Professor Wandering William's lips. The tones were so unlike his usual ones that everybody looked up at him. But only for an instant; the next moment the professor had—dropped back into his pompous, drawling way of speaking:
"It's a good thing we have a large supply of my wonder working remedies with us," he said; "they induce philosophy, smooth the thorny ways of life and make the old young and the young younger."
Mr. Bell looked at him sternly for an instant, and then apparently decided that the man was a harmless fool, for with a quick exclamation he strode off toward his tent, which lay at some distance from the camp. The others excitedly discussed the alarming turn events had taken, while Aunt Sally showed strong symptoms of hysterics. But Alverado, whose face had taken on a startled expression at Wandering William's quick exclamation, darted to the long-haired herb doctor's side.
"I know you now, senor, you are—"
Wandering William caught the man's gesticulating hand with a grasp of iron.
"Not so loud, Alverado," he whispered tensely, "the time isn't ripe for that yet."
"But, senor, you will capture them, and—"
The Mexican's manner had grown deferential, but Wandering William checked him with a glance from those keen eyes of his.
"Don't mention a word of this, Alverado. I rely on you."
"You can, senor. But hark! what is the matter with the Senor Bell?"
Evidently something serious was the matter with the mining man. He came bounding out of the dark shadows of the upper end of the canyon as the Mexican spoke. His face was black as thunder.
"More villainy!" he exclaimed as questions came pouring in upon him.
"Something else missing?"
It was Wandering William. His voice was as emotionless as if he had been a phonograph.
"Yes, I should say there was. The plans of the mine and its location as prepared for filing have been taken from my tent!"
Peggy's voice quivered.
"Stolen," repeated Mr. Bell, "and undoubtedly by the same band of scoundrels that cut the ponies loose, knowing that we could not pursue them."
"But we can overtake them in an aeroplane."
It was Peggy who spoke. Her bosom heaved and her cheeks burned red with excitement.
"True, my brave girl," rejoined Mr. Bell, "but of what use would that be? They have the papers and will file them. Without the papers you could do nothing, and I have no memoranda to draw up fresh ones."
"But in my pocket—I'm cutting no capers—I have a set of duplicate papers!"
Old Peter Bell, triumphant and poetical, stepped forward, at the same time drawing from his inner-coat pocket a bundle. It was the duplicate set which Mr. Bell had given Peggy to deliver to the former hermit, and which, up to that moment, had been forgotten in the excitement.
"Thank heaven!" exclaimed Mr. Bell, snatching at them; "Peter, you're a brick. Hooray, now we have a chance to beat the scoundrels at their own game."
"You mean if we can file those papers first they stand good in law?" asked Roy.
"That's just what I do mean, and I think that with the aeroplane we can do it."
"You can depend on it, Mr. Bell, that if there is a chance those papers get into Blue Creek first," cried Peggy ablaze with excitement.
"But we can't start to-night."
Roy's voice held a note of despair.
"That's all right, my boy. You need a good rest anyway. Red Bill—if it is his gang that has taken them—cannot get to Blue Creek for two days anyway. If you start at dawn to-morrow you can outwit them."
And so it was arranged. Roy and Peggy turned in early, while Jimsy worked all night getting the big monoplane in readiness. By earliest dawn all was ready and a hasty breakfast eaten. Then the monoplane was stocked with food and water and everything was ready for the dash across the desert.
Peggy and Roy had slipped into their linen coats and donned their hideous masks with the blue sun goggles, when a figure slipped up on the other side of the chassis and clambered unobserved into the box-like structure. It was not till half an hour later, when they were dashing through midair, that the figure revealed itself. Then the form of Wandering William crawled from under a bit of canvas used as an engine cover, and in answer to the amazed exclamations of the young aviators said:
"You'll have to forgive me. It'll be a good ad for my business to be able to say that Professor Wandering William has wandered along the aerial Pike."
MAROONED ON THE DESERT
There was nothing to be done but to accept the situation, little as either Roy or Peggy relished the eccentric "professor" for an aerial traveling companion. Only Peggy remarked with withering scorn:
"I think you might have waited till you were asked, don't you?"
The professor's reply was characteristic.
"My dear young lady, if I never sold anybody a bottle of my medicine except those that really wanted it I'd have a hard time getting along."
Roy was on the point of exclaiming "Bother your old medicine," when he suddenly recollected that had it not been for this queer personage they might not have been in the aeroplane at all. Instead—but Roy didn't care to think further along those lines.
Far below them suddenly appeared a giant halo of light. It hung above the desert, wheeling and gyrating about five feet above the glaring white of the alkali.
"A halo," remarked Professor Wandering William gazing over the edge of the chassis.
"A halo? Whose—Roy's?" inquired Peggy.
"No, it is one of those halos peculiar to the desert," was the professor's rejoinder; "it is caused by heat refraction or something of the sort. I recall I did read a lengthy explanation of it somewhere once, but I've forgotten it now."
"Does it portend anything?" asked Roy, turning round for a moment from his levers.
"No. not that I know of, at least—except that it's hot."
"Good gracious, we don't need a halo to tell us that," cried Peggy, and then regarding Professor Wandering William with that frank, straight "between the eyes" look, as Jimsy called it, Peggy remarked, "Do you know, Professor Wandering William, that you are a very odd person?"
"Odd, my dear young lady. How so?"
"Why at times you are quite different to—to what you are at others," stumbled Peggy lamely. It wasn't just what she wanted to say, but as she told herself it expressed it tolerably.
"Almost human sometimes, eh?" chuckled Professor Wandering William with a very odd winkle of his gray eyes; "well, you are not the first person who has said that."
To herself Peggy thought, "I'm sure that if he'd cut his hair and take off that dreadful goatee he'd be quite good looking. And his eyes, too, they twinkle and flash sometimes in a way very much out of keeping with his general appearance." But Professor Wandering William, seemingly quite oblivious to Peggy's frank gaze, was humming "Annie Laurie" to himself and gazing down at the flying desert as it flashed by below.
"At this rate we'll be in Blue Creek long before those other varmints," he observed at length; "that is, if all goes right. Wonderful things these aeroplanes. Great scheme for selling patent medicine. Why I could scatter my advertisements over a whole county in a day's time if I had one of these. That is unless I scattered myself first."
There was a sudden loud hissing sound from the motor. At the same instant the propeller ceased to revolve and the monoplane dashed downward with fearful force.
Roy worked at his levers desperately, while Peggy, white faced but silent, clung tightly to the sides of the chassis. Professor Wandering William did not utter a word, but his lips moved, as, from a pleasing rapid forward motion their course suddenly changed to that fearful downward plunge through space.
It seemed that in the molecule of time that intervened between the sudden stopping of the propeller and the moment that they reached the proximity of the ground that a whole lifetime flashed in front of Peggy. "Is this the end?" she caught herself thinking.
But it was not. Roy's skill averted that. He handled the disabled aeroplane so that as it struck the alkali its landing wheels sustained the shock. But even with all his skill he could not entirely ward off the shock. The monoplane struck the alkali in a shower of white dust that hurtled high above it like a breaking sea wave.
Peggy and the professor managed to hold on and resist the grinding shock, but Roy did not fare so well. Like a projectile from a catapult the shock flung him far. He came grinding down into the sand on one shoulder, ploughing a little furrow. Then he lay very still, while Peggy wondered vaguely if she was going to faint.
To scramble from the stranded machine was the work of an instant for the erratic professor, and he extended his hand to Peggy. With a supreme effort she pulled herself together and accepted his proffered help. But agitated as she: was, she did not fail to notice a surprising fact, and that was that the professor's hair was on one side! The next instant he caught the girl's startled eyes fixed upon it, but in that space of time he readjusted it, so that he appeared exactly as usual. But to Peggy the recollection of that deranged hair was unforgettable.
"It's—it's a wig!" she gasped to herself, and then, casting all other thoughts aside, sped to Roy's side.
"Roy! Roy! are you badly hurt, dear?" she breathed, going down on her knees in the rough surface of the desert.
The boy stirred uneasily and his eyes opened.
"Oh, is it you, Peggy? I guess I was knocked out for a minute. It's my shoulder. Ouch! Don't touch it."
The boy winced as Peggy's soft hand touched the injured member.
"Allow me. I've got a little skill at surgery."'
It was Professor Wandering William's voice, and Peggy caught herself wondering that he didn't make some reference to his infallible bone set or wonder-working liniment. But he didn't. Instead, he knelt by Roy's side, and with a few deft strokes of his knife had cut away the boy's shirt and bared a shoulder that was rapidly turning a deep blue.
Tenderly as a woman might have, Wandering William felt the wound.
"Hurt?" he asked, as Roy winced, biting his lips to keep from crying out under the agony.
"Hurt?" echoed Peggy indignantly; "of course it does."
Professor Wandering William looked up with an odd air of authority in his keen eyes.
"Please fetch me some water from the aeroplane," he said, and Peggy had no choice but to obey.
Professor Wandering William, picking Roy up in his arms as if he were a baby, instead of a 165-pound boy, carried him after her and laid the injured lad out in the scant strip of shade afforded by the aeroplane. Then, with bits of canvas ripped from the cover which had served to conceal him when he entered the aerial vehicle, the strange wanderer skillfully bathed and then bandaged the wound.
"Nothing more than a bad sprain," he announced.
"And just as I was going ahead at such tiptop speed, too," he complained. "I won't be able to use this arm for a month the way it feels."
"Never mind, Roy, I can drive the aeroplane," comforted Peggy. But Roy was fretful from pain.
"What can a girl do?" he demanded; "this is a man's work. Oh, it's too bad! It's—"
Suddenly the pain-crazed lad realized what he was saying and broke off abruptly:
"Don't mind me, sis. I'm all worked up, I guess. But if it hadn't been for this delay we'd have beaten them out. And now—"
"And now the first thing to do is to see what ails this old machine," said Professor Wandering William briskly. "Let me lift you into the what-you-may-call-um, my boy, and make you as comfortable as possible on this canvas."
The professor skillfully arranged the canvas from which he had cut the bandages, and making a pillow for Roy out of his own coat, he lifted the lad into the chassis.
"There now, you'll do," he said, as his ministrations were completed. "And now, young lady, as you know more about this thing than I do let's have a look at it and see what particular brand of illness it is suffering from."
A brief examination showed Peggy that the radiator—the intricate mesh-work of pipes in which the circulating water for cooling the cylinders is kept at a low temperature—was leaking, and that almost all their supply of water had leaked out. This had caused the cylinders of the motor to overheat and had stopped the aeroplane in midair.
Professor Wandering William noted the despairing look on Peggy's face as she discovered the cause of the stoppage.
"As bad as bad can be," the girl rejoined seriously; "it means if we can't get water and something to stop that leak with that we can't go on or go back. We're stuck right here."
"Phew!" Wandering William's lips puckered in a whistle. "I should just say that is bad."
He looked about him. On every side stretched the dazzling white alkali, with here and there a little dust devil dancing as if in mockery at their plight.
On all that vast expanse they seemed the only living things, and Wandering William knew the desert well enough to realize that it is not good to linger on its treacherous sands.
BUD TO THE RESCUE
"I'm going to look for water!"
Wandering William spoke decisively after an hour or more of futile endeavors to start the motor with the little fluid they could spare from the water kegs. But even without the leaky radiator it would have been an impossibility to cool the cylinders with the small quantity they were thus able to command.
"Look for water!" Peggy echoed the words blankly.
In all that sun-blistered expanse it seemed to be an impossibility to even dream of discovering a drop of moisture. And they needed buckets full.
Wandering William, perhaps deeming it wise not to strain the over-wrought girl's nerves further by keeping up the conversation, strode off. Apparently he wandered aimlessly, but in reality his keen, trained eyes were on the alert every instant. To the desert traveler the most insignificant signs may betray the presence of the life saving fluid.
Peggy watched the strange figure till it vanished from view over a low rise, for although the desert seems flat on a superficial view, it is, in reality, no more level than the tossing sea. Rises and hollows make its surface undulating.
In the meantime Peggy ministered to Roy as best she could. With a spare bit of canvas she made a shelter to keep off the blazing rays of the sun. Roy thanked her with a smile. The first sharp keen pain of his injury had gone, but he felt weak and dizzy. Presently he begged for a drink of water, and Peggy, not daring to tell him how low the supply was gave it to him. The boy was feverish from his injury, and almost drained the canteen of luke-warm stuff she held to his lips. Then he lay back with a satisfied smile.
"Get the radiator fixed yet?" he asked presently.
Peggy had told him that it would not be long before they were under way again.
"Not yet, Roy dear. But don't worry about that. It will be fixed presently. Suppose you try to go to sleep."
The boy closed his eyes and tried to compose himself to slumber. Before long he actually did doze off and lay in that state while the long hours dragged slowly by. Wandering William had not reappeared, and Peggy wondered in a dull, vague sort of sort of way if he ever would come back. Perhaps he had deserted them, she thought. But, even this reflection brought no poignant sensation of despair. The girl had sunk into a sort of apathy in which nothing' seemed to matter much. Only she fairly ached with thirst. But Roy would awake presently and want water. The little they had must be saved for him.
And so the hours wore on and the sun marched blazingly across the sky. It was mid-afternoon, and Roy had not awakened, when Peggy was startled from her gloomy thoughts by a loud hail.
Springing to her feet she looked across the desert. On the summit of a distant earth wave she saw the figure of Wandering William. He was gesticulating frantically and shouting something. He had his hands to his mouth, funnelwise, to make the sound carry better.
What was it he was crying out? It sounded like—yes, it was:
"Water! I've found it! Water!"
Peggy hastily snatched up the two buckets with which the aeroplane was equipped, and hurried toward the distant figure. She reached Wandering William's side in quicker time than she would have thought possible, such was the stimulating effect of the glad news. The strange "professor" said not a word, but took her by the hand and began striding in great steps across the sandy dunes.
They had walked about a quarter of a mile when they reached a spot where yuccas and prickly desert plants of different varieties grew thickly. At the bottom of this desolate little valley was a pool on which the sunlight shone glitteringly. It was shallow and warm, and the color of rusty iron, but it was water.
Taking the folding tin cup that Wandering William produced from one of his pockets, the girl drank eagerly. Never had sparkling spring, water in the fruitful Eastern country tasted half so good as that tepid, dirty alkaline stuff that Wandering William had so providentially stumbled upon.
"How did you find it?" gasped Peggy.
Wandering William indicated a tumble down sign post a few paces off. To it was nailed board with sun faded lettering on it.
"Read it," commanded Wandering William.
"'To the lost in the desert inferno,'" read Peggy, "'water is twenty paces to the west.'"
"If it hadn't been for the white soul of the man who put that up there," commented the "professor," "we might have perished miserably. Heaven bless him, wherever he is."
"Amen," murmured Peggy.
They filled the buckets, and staggering under their weight, Wandering William led the way back to the aeroplane. Roy was awake and thirsty. He drank greedily of the turbid stuff they offered him.
"And now," said the professor, "let's get to work on that radiator."
But try as they would, they could not stop the leak. Indeed, so much water was wasted in their experiments that several more trips to the pool were necessary.
"Looks like we have run into the worst streak of hard luck I ever heard of," sighed Wandering William despairingly, after the failure of the twentieth trial to get the cooling system to hold water. "We've just got to plug that leak somehow, or—"
He didn't finish the sentence. There was no need for him to do that.
Suddenly Peggy, who had looked up from the baffling task for an instant, gave a cry:
"Look! Look there! What's all that dust?"
"It's horsemen of some kind, and they're coming this way!" cried Wandering William.
As he spoke his hand slid to his hip, and he drew out his well-oiled and worn old forty-four.
"Do you think that they are—that they are Red Bill's men?"
"Don't know yet. The dust's thick and the light's bad."
"If they are?"
"Then we are in for a mighty bad quarter of an hour. Consarn the luck, everything seems to be going wrong at once."
On and on swept the dust cloud, growing close with great rapidity. With what anxious feelings the strange herb doctor and the girl watched its advance may be imagined. As for Roy, he lay on the floor of the chassis unaware of what was transpiring without.
There seemed to be several of the riders—a dozen at least.
"What beats me is, if those are Red Bill's men what are they doing in this direction?" said Wandering William, a puzzled look creeping over his weather-beaten countenance.
"Perhaps they have seen that the aeroplane is stranded and are coming to destroy it," hazarded Peggy.
"Maybe," rejoined Wandering William in a far-away voice. His eyes and mind were bent on the approaching cavalcade. If the riders were not Red Bill's men it meant succor and aid. If they were the outlaw's band, it meant-well, Wandering William did not care to dwell upon the thought.
"A few seconds will tell now," he observed as through the dust cloud the outlines of the horsemen became visible.
All at once a shrill series of cries rang out:
There was something familiar in the sound to Peggy. She leaned forward, straining her ears. Suddenly an active little bronco seemed to separate from the ruck of the riders and dashed forward alone. On his back sat a familiar figure and not a beautiful one, but to Peggy no angel from heavenly regions could have appeared more, beatific just then, for in the rider she had recognized the redoubtable Bud, the leader of the horse hunters.
Bud swept off his sombrero as he dashed up, and was apparently about to make some jocular remark, but he stopped short at the sight of Peggy's pale, anxious face.
"Wa-al, what's all ther trouble hyar?" he demanded; "your sky bronco foundered? Why hello, thar's Wandering William. Didn't know as you was a sky pilot feller?"
"I'm not, I guess," rejoined Wandering William quietly. "I wish I were, and then may be I could help out on this difficulty."
"Wa-al, what's up?" drawled Bud, as his followers came loping up; "anything I kin do? We're on our way back to ther hills frum town," he explained. "We caught more than twenty wild horses and took'em inter Blue Creek. One of ther boys sighted you away off or we'd have missed yer I reckin.
"Now, miss, I ain't one ter fergit a blow-out like thet yer gave us at Steer Wells. Jes say ther word an' if you like we'll tow this here cloud clipper back inter town."
"Let's see if we can't hit on a way of fixing it first," said Wandering William; "you see," he explained to Bud, "the radiator—"
"Hyar, hold on thar. Talk United States language. What's wrong with this arrangement meter.
"It's sprung a leak," volunteered Peggy; "look here, you can see for yourself. The hole is tiny, but it's big enough to let out all the water that we need to cool the cylinders."
"Humph," said Bud crossing his hands on the horn of his saddle and gazing abstractedly at the leak, "what you need is solder," he announced presently.
"If we'd had any we'd been out of here long ago," rejoined Peggy, as Roy, hearing the unusual noise, peered over the edge of the chassis.
"Hullo, kid; what's biting you?" demanded the breezy Bud.
"Guess I'm out of commission for a while," rejoined Roy bravely.
Peggy hastily explained the accident, and then, as she saw no harm in doing so, she gave Bud a hasty sketch of the events leading up to their being marooned on the alkali.
"So you're after that ornery varmint, Red Bill, are yer?" remarked Bud as she concluded; "wa-al I'll do all in my power to help you. I've bin a studyin' that thar leak while you was a talkite. What you need is suthin' to stop it up."
"Obviously," said Peggy with a trace of annoyance in her tone.
"Now don't git riled, fer I've hit on a scheme ter git yer out of yer troubles."
Bud shoved back his sombrero and gazed triumphantly at the astonished girl aviator.
WHAT CHEWING GUM DID
"But, Bud, how?"
"Easy enough. Hyar," he exclaimed, looking back at the horsemen behind him, "whar's that dude Chick Berry?"
"Here I be, Bud," replied a small, freckle-faced cowboy with blue silk ribbons on his shirt sleeves and other marks of the cowboy dude about him.
"Got any of that thar gum you's always achewin' so as ter be agreeable to ther ladies?" demanded Bud.
"Shore, Bud," rejoined Chick, pulling off an embroidered gauntlet and extracting a pink package from his breast pocket.
"Wall, chaw some quick, and chaw it good. I need it."
Chick's jaws worked overtime. Presently he handed a small wad of glutinous gum to his leader.
"Na-ow then," announced Bud, dismounting, "I'm goin' ter show you a hurry up repair job."
He squatted, cow-boy fashion, in front of the radiator, and with deft fingers pressed the gum into the leak.
"Let it dry a minute an' I'll bet ye that what-you-may-call-um will be as tight as a drum. No, don't give me no credit fer ther idee. I seen a feller fix his gasoline gig that way one day when I was down in San Antone,"
At the expiration of a few anxious minutes, water was poured into the radiator, and, to their immense relief, Bud's hastily contrived bit of plumbing worked. The radiator held water perfectly and a few moments later Peggy started the engine.
But at the first revolutions of the propellers a strange thing happened. On the spot where, a second before, had stood a group of interested horse hunters, not one remained after the propeller had whizzed round a couple of times. They were scattered all over the desert, their ponies maddened beyond all control by terror at the noise and smoke of the aeroplane's motor.
Bud alone managed to spur his pony close to the throbbing machine.
"Good bye and good luck!" he shouted, and waved his hat. The next instant his pony swung round on its hind legs and dashed off to join its terrified companions.
With an answering wave of the hand Peggy threw in the clutch that started the aeroplane forward, and after their long enforced delay they once more took the air. But a day had practically gone—a day in which the fight for the mine might have been lost.
Never had Peggy urged an aeroplane to greater speed than she did the fast monoplane, at the wheel of which she was now stationed. The desert floor flew by beneath them in a dull blur. The roar and vibration of the powerful motor shook the car like a leaf. Wandering William said nothing, but he gazed rather apprehensively over the side from time to time. Also he might have been observed to clutch at his hair occasionally.
"Can you see anything of the town yet?"
The professor leaned forward and shouted the question in Peggy's ear. He had to do so in order to make himself heard above the roar of the engine.
Peggy shook her head, but motioned to a pocket in which were a pair of field-glasses.
Wandering William understood, and raising them, held them to his eyes.
The sun was low and a reddish haze overhung the desert. But presently into the field of the binoculars there swung a-tall water tower. It marked the site of Blue Creek.
"I've got it," cried the observer; "swing off to the right a bit."
Obediently the big flying thing turned and rushed through the air toward the distant landmark.
"I can see the place now," cried Peggy. "Pray heaven we'll be in time."
She tried to put on more speed, but already the big monoplane was doing all it could, and a more. Under their hood the cylinders were smoking. There was a smell of blistered paint about the aerial craft. But Peggy never slackened speed for an instant. With the time that had been lost with the leaky radiator, she knew it was possible that Red Bill's men were already in the town.
If she had known that a speedy automobile had met the stealers of the location papers in mid-desert that afternoon and rushed them into Blue Creek she might have given up in despair. But, she knew nothing of Red Bill's ruse, and imagined that the trip with the stolen papers had been made on horseback all the way.
Fifteen minutes after the little settlement been first sighted the aeroplane soared roofs in a long, graceful swing, and then swooped to earth in front of the National House. Cash and the usual group of loungers came rushing out in huge excitement.
"It's an airship! Come and see the airship!"
The cry spread through the town like wildfire. In five minutes quite a large crowd was swirling and surging about the machine and its anxious occupants.
"Whar's the United States Assayer's office?" demanded Wandering William, above the hubbub and excitement.
"Why it's two blocks to the right an' down that alley," volunteered Cash; "you're the second party as has bin askin' fer it ter day."
Peggy's heart sank and Wandering William bit his lips. From the bottom of the chassis Roy demanded:
"Are we too late?"
"We don't know yet, Roy dear," Peggy found time to whisper, and then:
"Who else was looking for the assayer?"
"Feller in a big automobile. All dust-covered, too. Said he had a claim ter file."
Wandering William actually groaned. But Cash went on speaking.
"Funny, all this rush of business should come ter day."
"How's that?" inquired Wandering William for want of something better to say.
"Why 'cause ther assay office is closed up. Jim Dallam, as ran it, his mother is dead, an' he got leave ter go back East. Ther nearest assay office now is at Monument Rocks sixty miles east of hyar."
Straw of hope as it was they clutched at it eagerly. There might be a train leaving within a reasonable time:
"Can we get a train there?" asked Wandering William eagerly bending forward.
"Reckon ye're jes' too late; one pulled out half an hour ago."
"Did—did the man with the red auto catch it?" asked Peggy breathlessly.
"Yes, mum—miss, I mean. He allowed he was going ter git them papers filed or bust."
The blow had fallen. Peggy sat numb and limp in the chassis. But presently the necessity of attending to Roy aroused her from her lethargy. Under her directions the boy was removed to a bed in the hotel and a doctor sent for. The physician lived in the hotel, so no time was lost before he was at Roy's bedside. He had finished his examination and had pronounced the injury painful, but not dangerous, when, without ceremony, Wandering William burst into the room.
"We can make it yet! We can make it yet!" he was shouting.
The doctor looked up as if he thought he had another patient and a maniac to deal with.
"I—I beg your pardon," stammered Wandering William, "but this is a vital matter to this young lady and gentleman."
"Yes—yes, what is it?" asked Peggy eagerly. Her eyes burned with eagerness and suppressed excitement. Something in Wandering William's manner seemed to say that he had found a way out of their difficulties.
"I've made inquiries," he repeated, "and I've found out that the train to Monument Rocks makes several stops. There's just a chance that we can beat it in the aeroplane."
Roy raised himself up in bed despite the pain.
"I think so. But we must hurry."
"Sis, do you mean you are going to try it?"
"Of course. We must."
"Then go in and win," cried the boy; "you can follow the tracks by the lights and once you overtake the train the rest will be easy."
The amazed doctor fairly dropped his case of instruments at this whirlwind dialogue.
"But—what—why—bless my soul," he gasped, but only the first part of his remarks was heard by Peggy. Followed by Wandering William she dashed from the room and into the street. In front of the hotel Cash was having a hard time keeping souvenir hunters from the aeroplane. But a pair of blue revolvers, like miniature Gatling guns, acted as powerful dissuaders of curiosity.
A RACE THROUGH THE NIGHT
"All right. Stand clear, please!"
The aeroplane had been tuned up, and now, panting like an impatient horse, it was ready to be off on its dash for Monument Rocks. But the crowd stupidly clustered about it like bees round a rose bush. The delay was maddening, but Peggy dared not start for fear of injuring someone.
"Won't you please stand aside?" she begged for the twentieth time, but the crowd just as obstinately lingered.
Suddenly an idea came to her. She cut out the mufflers and instantly a deafening series of reports, like a battery of Gatling guns going into action, filled the air. Tense as the situation was, neither Peggy nor Wandering William on the rear seat could keep from laughing as they saw the effect the bombardment of noise had.
The inhabitants of Blue Creek literally tumbled all over each other in their haste to get out of the way. Five seconds after the deafening uproar commenced a clear path was presented, and, before the crowd could get used to the sound and come surging around again, Peggy started the aeroplane up. Amid a mighty shout it took the air and vanished like a flash in the gathering dusk. The race against time was on.
Fortunately the telegraph poles along the right of way acted as guides, for, in the gathering darkness, the tracks were hardly visible. Peggy did not dare to fly too low, however, for it was only in the upper air currents that the monoplane could develop its best speed.
But even with all her care she pressed the machine too hard, for half an hour after their departure from Blue Creek they had to alight to allow the cylinders to cool. Bud's makeshift stop for the leak, however, was acting splendidly, and Peggy mentally stored it away as a good idea for future use.
The delay was annoying to the point of being maddening, but there was no help for it. To have taken the air with heated cylinders would have been to court disaster. While they waited out in the lonely Nevada hills beside the single-track railroad, Peggy's mind held a lively vision of the train speeding toward Monument Rocks and the Assay Office, bearing with it the stolen papers carried by Red Bill's agent.
At last, after what seemed an eternity, they were ready to start once more. Peggy lost no time in taking to the air. With her every cylinder developing its full horse power, the aeroplane sky-rocketed upward at a rate that made Wandering William hold on for dear life.
"W-w-w-what speed are we making?"
The question was jolted out of the passenger.
"About sixty," Peggy flung back at him.
"Then we ought to overtake the train. I understand it only makes forty-five even on the most favorable bits of road, and the tracks are pretty rough out in this part of the country."
On through the night they roared. It was quite dark now, and Peggy had switched on the search light with which the aeroplane was provided. It cast a white pencil of light downward, showing the parallel bands of steel. Somewhere ahead of them, on those tracks, was the train. But how far ahead? As yet no gleam of its tail lights had come through the darkness.
All at once Peggy gave a triumphant cry.
"Look!" she cried. "It's the train!"
Far ahead gleamed two tiny red lights. They glowed through the darkness like the eyes of some wild animal. But the occupants of the aeroplane knew they were the tail lights of the train that was carrying the stolen papers to Monument Rocks.
Peggy tried to put on still more speed, but the aeroplane was doing its best. But fast as it was going, it seemed to crawl up on the train at a snail pace. The tail lights still kept far ahead.
But although the gain was slow, it was, steady. Before another dozen miles had been passed Peggy was flying above the train.
In the glare of the furnaces as the fireman jerked the doors open, Peggy could see the engineer and his mate gazing up at them with something of awe in their expressions. Aeroplanes were not as common in the far West as in the East.
Suddenly the girl noticed a figure emerge from the forward door of the front coach and clamber over the tender and drop lightly into the cab. A sudden gleam from the fire door served to light his features. Peggy recognized him instantly as the tall "romantic bandit," the one with the red sash.
The girl saw him lean toward the engineer and thrust something into his hand. It looked like a roll of bills. The next instant the train's speed perceptibly increased. It was all the aeroplane could do to keep up with it.
"He's given the engineer money, to go faster," exclaimed Wandering William.
The tall figure now crawled back on the tender and gazed upward. His hand glided back to his hip. The next moment there was a flash, and a bullet zipped wickedly through the air past Peggy's ear.
"The coyote, he's firing at us!" cried Wandering William.
Another bullet sang by the speeding aeroplane. Apparently the fireman and the engineer could not hear the shooting above the noise of the flying engine, for they did not turn their heads. Presently the fireman began shoveling on coal at a terrific rate. Sparks and flame shot from the smokestack of the locomotive. They streaked the night with fire.
"Is he trying to kill us?" exclaimed Peggy as another shot winged past.
"I hardly think he'd risk that," rejoined Wandering William, "but what he's up to is almost as bad. He's trying to disable the aeroplane."
But before another could be fired the train began to slacken speed. Ahead and below the aeroplane could be seen a cluster of lights.
"Monument Rocks!" exclaimed Wandering William; "here's where we play the hand out."
Peggy, keeping a bright lookout for a good landing place, presently espied a sort of plaza in the center of the town. It was brilliantly illuminated by a number of arc lights and offered a fine spot for landing. She decided to risk a quick drop and swung the aeroplane downward at a rapid gait.
As the whirring of the propeller—like the drone of a giant locust—resounded over the town, people came pouring out from houses and shops to witness the descent. The crowd gathered so quickly that Peggy had difficulty to avoid hitting some of them. However, she managed to bring the aeroplane to a standstill without an accident.
A local policeman came up as they stopped, and to him Peggy entrusted the machine. Followed by Wandering William she darted off across the plaza and made for a cab stand immediately across it and just outside the depot. As she rushed up to the solitary rickety hack that was standing there and was about to step in a tall figure came rushing out of the station. The train had just pulled in, and long before its wheels had stopped revolving he had leaped from it.
"Get to one side," he shouted, grabbing Peggy's arm roughly and swinging her aside. "I guess I'm first on this deal."
"What do you mean," demanded Peggy angrily; "I had this cab first."
"But now I dispossess you of it this way!"
The ruffian had his hand raised to strike when something happened. A lithe, muscular form glided under the upraised fist, and the next moment there was a sharp crack as the newcomer's fist collided with the other's chin.
He went staggering backward and fell in a heap on the sidewalk.
A tall man with a broad brimmed hat came bustling up, followed by a small crowd attracted from the aeroplane by the disorder.
"Here, here, what's all this?" demanded the tall man in an authoritative tone. "What does this mean?"
"That this man I've just knocked down is under arrest for participation in the Laredo stage robbery and for numerous other crimes, including the larceny of some location papers he was about to file."
The words came from an athletic young man who had felled Peggy's assailant. The girl looked up at him. In the electric light there was something familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar about his features, and his keen, kindly eyes.
"Why," exclaimed Peggy wonderingly, "it's—it's—"
"Wandering William, minus his wig and goatee, otherwise Sam Kelly, of the United States Secret Service," rejoined the other with a merry laugh. "I guess I'll go out of the doctor business now, since I've nabbed one of the men I was after. Now then, you rascal," addressing the "romantic bandit," who had scrambled to his feet, "where are the rest of Red Bill's precious gang?"
"I don't know," sullenly rejoined the prisoner.
"Oh, yes you do; but first of all give me those papers."
"The ones you brought here to file in the Assay Office."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do. Come now, or I'll ask the sheriff to search you."
With a very bad grace the outlaw dove into his pocket and handed over a bundle of papers. Wandering Will—we mean Detective Sam Kelly—took them and handed them to Peggy.
"Those are more yours than mine," he said; "we'll file them in the morning or at any time there's no hurry now."
"Now then," he resumed, turning to the tall outlaw whose arms were held by two of the sheriff's deputies, "are you going to answer my question, where is Red Bill and the rest of them now?"
"Where you can't reach 'em in time to queer their game," came in a voice of sullen triumph; "they're at Jim Bell's mine picking up gold and silver."
The sun rose redly and shone down into the arroyo on a group of sleepless, anxious persons. As the tall bandit had triumphantly announced, Jim Bell's mine was besieged. Since the evening before armed horsemen had surrounded it, but so far the little garrison had held out.
If Red Bill had had any idea that he was going to find Mr. Bell an easy prey he must have revised his opinion. But he knew that it was only a question of time till he could starve him out and take possession of the mine. He was unaware of the departure of the aeroplane for Blue Creek, otherwise he might have kept a better look out.
"I wonder if they got through?"
It was Mr. Bell who spoke, making a brave attempt at indifference to the danger that hedged them in.
Before anyone could reply a figure on horse-back appeared at the head of the arroyo. It was Red Bill himself. On his ankle was a bandage, but his amazing vitality had left no other traces of the bite of the rattlesnake.
"Wa-al, Jim Bell," he demanded, "for the third an' last time, air you goin' ter give in peaceable? Ain't no sense in holding out. We've got your stock. We'll tap your water hole if we can strike the vein and it won't take us long. We've got you whar we want you, an' if you've got ther brains uv a yearling calf you'll throw up the sponge and give us the mine."
"Not while I can raise a hand to fight you," rejoined Jim Bell boldly. "Ah! I might have expected some such trick!"
A bullet had whizzed past his ear and flattened itself on the rock behind the mining man. If he had not caught the quick movement of Red Bill's arm just in time the moment might have been his last.
"That's just a taste of what you'll git if you try to stick it out," bellowed Red Bill, and wheeling his horse he rode off.
Two or three times that morning Jimsy tried the experiment of raising a hat on a rifle barrel above the top of the little canyon. Each time a bullet pierced it, showing that the place was well watched.
Miss Sally lay on her cot in her tent. The venerable New England lady was literally half-dead from fright. Alverado, sullen eyed and apathetic, strode up and down the canyon all day muttering threats he was powerless to carry out. Jess, wide-eyed and white-faced, but brave, did her share of the work and kept Jimsy and Mr. Bell cheered up as well as she could.
But the suspense of awaiting the return of Peggy and Roy was the hardest to bear. If they had gotten through safely and the papers were filed, then, even if Red Bill captured the mine he could not work it. A few nuggets would be his reward. But if the aeroplane had been disabled or had reached Blue Creek too late, why then Red Bill held all the cards. Mr. Bell had reasoned this out with himself over and over again, while his brother sat, staring and disconsolate, playing endless games of solitaire.
It was past noon when Jimsy, who had taken an observation between two rocks, which acted as a bullet-proof sentry box, announced that the forces of the outlaws seemed to be massing.
"Looks as if they were going to make an attack," he said.
Mr. Bell clambered up and speedily confirmed the correctness of Jimsy's opinion.
"Get everything ready," he ordered; "there's just a chance we can stand them off. If not, we'll have to trust to their mercy."
A clatter of hoofs sounded above the arroyo and the next instant several horsemen appeared. Without knowing just what he was doing Jimsy, who had a rifle in his hands, pulled the trigger. He was amazed to see the giant form of Red Bill totter and reel in the saddle, and fall with a crash to the ground. The next instant horror at the idea that he had killed the man seized on him. His hands shook so that he almost dropped the rifle.
But there was little time for reflection. The sight of their leader's downfall seemed to drive the other outlaws to frenzy. They poured a leaden hail into the arroyo that must have exterminated every living thing in it if they had not sought shelter behind a mighty mass of boulders.
Hardly had they crouched there in temporary safety, before, far above them, came a familiar sound. The giant droning of an enormous beetle was what it seemed to resemble most. But Jess and Jimsy recognized it instantly.
"An aeroplane!" shouted Jess.
"It's Peggy and Roy!" cried Jimsy the next instant. Looking upward against the blue was outlined the scarab-like form of the monoplane.
At the same moment a terrific trampling of horses' hoofs sounded above. Shots and shouts rang out in wild confusion.
"What can be happening?" gasped Jess. Even Aunt Sally, cowering in her tent, summoned courage to peek forth. The sight they saw was an inspiring one. Bud and his horse hunters were riding down the outlaws in every direction.
While this was going on, the aeroplane swung lower. From it there stepped as it alighted, not Roy and Peggy, but Peggy and a strange young man whom nobody recollected having seen before. Without a word he bounced from the chassis as the aeroplane struck the ground, and, revolver in hand, set off in hot pursuit of Bud and his men, who, from horse hunters, had become man hunters.
The outlaws, outnumbered and outridden, were fain to cry for quarter. With the exception of three who escaped, the whole band was rounded up and made prisoners. Red Bill, who proved to be only slightly wounded, was captured by Sam Kelly himself.
The presence of the horse hunters on the scene at the opportune moment was soon explained by Peggy, who spent a busy hour relating all that had occurred since they left the camp. Roy, she explained, was still at the hotel in Blue Creek, but mending rapidly. She and the detective had encountered the horse hunters as the aeroplane was on its return journey, and, guessing from the tall bandit's story that the camp in the arroyo must be besieged, they enlisted the services of Bud and his followers.
There seems to be little more to tell of this portion of the Girl Aviators' adventures. The mine, in the developing of which they had played such striking parts, proved to be rich beyond even Mr. Bell's dreams, and when additional claims were taken up each of the young airship enthusiasts found that he or she had substantial shares in them.
The aeroplane line from the mine to the railroad, which had been Mr. Bell's original idea, proved to be a great success. Under Roy's tuition three young aviators, who were brought from the East, were instructed in managing their lines. Alverado, it will be recalled, recognized Sam Kelly as an old acquaintance during lawless times in Mexico—he has been appointed to a position in the government service, where he has done good work in aiding to rid the Big Alkali of the rascals that formerly infested it.
As for our young friends, when the aeroplane line was well established, they returned to the East, as Aunt Sally firmly refused to remain any longer in the far West, which she always scripturally refers to as a land of "the wicked and stiff-necked."
But their adventures were by no means over, as perhaps might be expected in the case of those who dare the air in fast flying machines. Their experience on the great Nevada desert was not destined to be the only time that the Girl Aviators and their chums proved their worth in seasons of danger and necessity.
Stirring aerial adventures lay ahead of them, still more exciting than the ones they had encountered while "On Golden Wings." What these were, and how our girls and boys acquitted themselves in facing and surmounting fresh difficulties and dangers—as well as their lighter moments—will be related in full in the next volume of this series:
"THE GIRL AVIATORS' SKY CRUISE."