The supper that Elizabeth brought, smoking hot, to the long, board- made table the boys quickly set up in the hangar, did not smack very much of inexperience. Even Budge declared it was well worth the trip across the river. The boys were inclined to linger over the meal, and Dave started in to tell a long story about a hunting trip in which he and his uncle had been the heroes of a bear adventure, but Mr. Fulton stopped him, even if the yawns of his listeners had not warned him to cut the tale short.
"We're in for some good hard licks, men," said Mr. Fulton, "and it's going to mean early to bed and early to rise. That is," he amended, "if you want to go through with it."
"We'll stick to the bitter end," they cried. "What's the program?"
"Two weeks of the hardest kind of work. Breakfast at six; work at six-thirty, till twelve; half hour for lunch; work till seven; dinner; bed. That may not sound like much fun—it isn't."
"Suits us," declared Phil for the rest. "Do we get a front seat at the circus when the man puts his head in the lion's mouth—and a ride on the elephant?" he joked, pointing at the dismembered Skyrocket.
"I'll give you something better than that, just leave it to me," promised Mr. Fulton. "Where you going to turn in?"
"We go over to camp. You'll blow the factory whistle when it's time to get up, won't you?"
"No," teased Elizabeth, coming in just then, "I'll drop a couple o' nice smooth pebbles into camp as a gentle reminder."
It was a jolly party that crowded into the two boats and sang and shouted their way across Plum Run some ten minutes later, but within the half-hour the night was still, for tired muscles could not long resist the call of sleep.
But bright and early next morning they were all astir long before the hour of six and the promised pebbles. A swim in Plum Bun put them in good trim for a hearty breakfast, and that in turn put them in shape for a hard day's work.
And a hard day it turned out to be, for Mr. Fulton parceled out the work and kept everyone on the jump. Jerry and Tod were put at the motor, which had refused to respond to its owner's coaxing. They twisted, tightened, adjusted, tested, till their fingers were cramped and eyes and backs ached.
Lunch gave a most welcome rest, but the half hour was all too short. Every one of them welcomed Mr. Fulton's decision when he said: "We've got along so nicely that I think I will call this a six- o'clock day. Wash up, everybody, and let's see what Elizabeth has for us."
A WILD NIGHT
That was merely the first of a whole week of days that seemed amazingly alike. Mr. Fulton tried to make the work as interesting as possible by letting them change off jobs as often as he could. But even then there was little that under ordinary circumstances would interest a regular out-of-doors boy. What helped was that the circumstances were not ordinary. It was all a big game to them—a fight against odds. Perhaps at times the screwing of greasy nuts on greasier bolts did not look much like a game, nor did the tedious pushing of a plane or twisting a brace and bit look like a fight, but every one of the boys sensed the tense something that was back of all Mr. Fulton's cheery hustle.
They knew that his arm and shoulder hurt fearfully at times, but never a complaint did they hear from him, although he was all sympathy over the blood-blisters and cut hands of their own mishaps.
But the second week made up for any lack of excitement that the boys had felt. The week was up Wednesday night. On Thursday morning Mr. Fulton met them with a white face that somehow showed the light of battle.
"Guess you'd better arrange, Boss Jerry, to leave a couple of your Scouts on guard here nights," was all he said, but the boys felt that something disturbing had happened the night before. They questioned Elizabeth when she brought their lunch, which they ate from benches and boxes to save time, but she would give them no satisfaction. Tod seemed to know something, but he too was strangely mum.
Jerry decided to remain over that night himself, and Phil, who had dropped a steel wrench across his toes and so had to remain for medical attention anyway, offered to share the watch with him. After Mr. Fulton had left them at about ten o'clock, they talked for awhile together, but finally they both began to yawn.
"What'll it be?" asked Phil. "Two hours at a stretch, turn and turn about?"
"Suits me," said Jerry. "Ill take the first trick."
Phil's snoring something like fifty-nine seconds later was sufficient answer. All was still, and Jerry set about to await midnight, when he could hope for a brief snooze. After a while the silence began to wear on his nerves and in every night noise he fancied he heard steps. He sat still and watchful, hardly breathing at times, his finger poised above a push button that would ring a bell where Mr. Fulton lay stretched out on a pallet on the floor of the tiny cabin.
But midnight came and nothing had happened. He roused Phil and then hunted himself out a soft spot in which to curl up. But he had grown so used to listening that now he found he could not stop. He tried counting, only it was fish he was catching instead of sheep going through the gap in the hedge. It was no use. At last he got up and stretched himself.
"Guess I'll take a turn around in the cool air; I can't seem to sleep."
"Gee," grumbled Phil, "and here I can't seem to stay awake. Just as well have let me slumber on in peace."
"Well, don't slumber while I'm gone, sleepyhead."
Jerry walked across the open ground and after an undecided halt, broke through the bushes, heavy now with dew, and made for the shore. He stood for a long time on the bank, looking across to where the Scout camp lay quiet in the darkness, and then turned and was about to go back to Phil. But he paused; a steady creaking sound had broken the night. It was drawing slowly nearer. It was a rowboat.
"Great conspirators, they are!" sniffed Jerry. "They might at least grease their oars." He heard the mumble of low voices, the sush of a boat keel on the sand. Reaching down, he caught up a big handful of pebbles; with a hard overhand swing he let them fly.
He heard a muttered "Ouch!" and then, after a moment's silence, once more the creak-crook of oars. "Batter out" chuckled Jerry to himself as he scurried back to the hangar.
After that he slept.
The boys were all excitement when he told his story next morning, but that was nothing to compare with the exclamation that arose that same evening when they returned to camp to find that Dave, who had been left in charge, had disappeared, and that the place had been rifled and then torn all to pieces. Poor Dave was found not far off, tied to a tree. His story was somewhat lacking in detail. He had sat dozing over a book on aeronautics, when suddenly an earthquake came up and hit him over the head. That was all he knew till he woke up tied securely to a tree.
"That settles it," declared Phil. "We ought to have done it in the first place, but the boss didn't think it was worth while."
"What's that?" demanded Jerry, a bit sharply.
"Well, what's the idea of our coming over here every night to sleep, when there's oodles of room there on Lost Island, where we're needed? Huh?"
"What's that 'huh'? Boy Scout for sir?" cried Jerry hotly.
Phil jumped to his feet, but to the surprise of Jerry, who had put up his fists, the Scout Leader brought his heels together with a click and his right hand went to the salute.
"I stand convicted," he said simply. "You're the boss of this expedition. What's orders?"
"Orders are to break camp—it's already pretty well broken—and take ship for Lost Island. Patrol Leader Fulton will take charge of the job while Boss Ring goes off and kicks himself quietly but firmly."
They all laughed and good feeling was restored. The Scouts made short work of getting their traps together, even in the dark, and it was not many minutes before the first load was on the way to Lost Island.
Jerry, Phil and Dave followed silently afterwards in the Big Four with the rest of the dunnage.
"You think they did it?" asked Dave of no one in particular. No one asked who they were, nor did anyone answer, but each knew what the others were thinking.
Mr. Fulton showed no surprise when told of their decision to camp henceforth on the island. "Good idea," was his only comment.
They were not disturbed that night, and the next day passed without incident, save that Budge had the bad luck to break a truss he had been all day in making. "Good!" said Mr. Fulton. "That wood might have caused a serious accident if it had got into the Skyrocket." Budge, knowing his awkwardness and not the timber was to blame, felt grateful that he had been spared the reproof that would have been natural.
They had been making good progress, in spite of their greenness; next day Mr. Fulton was planning to stretch the silk over the planes; it had already been given a preliminary coat of a kind of flexible varnish which was also a part of Mr. Fulton's invention. The carpenter had done his part handsomely. The launch had come down the day before with all of the heavier framework and trusses. A few rods were still to come from the blacksmith, and the rear elevator control was still awaited, but enough of the material had been mended and put in place to make the aeroplane look less like a wreck.
Jerry and Mr. Fulton had finally managed to master the secret of the motor; that is, they finally made it run as smoothly as a top, but neither one was ever able to tell why it had not done so from the start. Oiled and polished, it stood on the bench till a final brace should be forthcoming.
Camp had been pitched on the river side of the open ground, close beside the path. The second night of their new location Mr. Fulton and Elizabeth came over, Dick guarding the Skyrocket and Tod remaining at the cabin to look after poor Billings, who, thanks to the doctor's daily visits and his daughter's patient nursing, was growing steadily stronger. Elizabeth brought along a guitar, which she played daintily, singing the choruses of all the popular songs the boys could ask for by name. After a little bashful hesitation, Dave chimed in, while the rest of the boys lay back and listened in undisguised delight.
Into this peaceful scene burst Tod, frightened out of his wits. It was a full minute before he finally managed to gasp:
"They've come—they've been here! I didn't see them!"
"What in the world do you mean?" cried Mr. Fulton, shaking the excited boy with his left hand. "If you didn't see them, how do you——"
"I didn't. But it's gone—the motor's gone.——"
"What!" yelled the whole crew at once.
"Dick and I sat outside the doorway, listening to you folks having a good time, and I went in to see what time it was—and there was the hole in the side of the hang—hang—the shed, and the motor had disappeared. At least that was all we noticed was gone."
The last of this was delivered on the run, for all had set out for the machine shop, Mr. Fulton having promptly vetoed Phil's plan to put a circle of Scouts around the shore.
Sure enough, a big gap showed in the side of the hangar, where two boards had been pried loose. "Lucky you were outside," grunted Phil disgustedly, "or they'd have pulled the whole place down over your head."
"We've got to work fast," urged Mr. Fulton. "If they get away with the motor the stuff's all off. They're desperate men—I don't want any of you trying to tackle them. Scout ahead, and when you sight them, this is the signal:" He whistled the three short notes of the whippoor-will's call. "I've got my automatic, and I guess I can take care of them."
As they hurried out into the night they spread out, working toward the east side of the island. Jerry found himself next to Phil, and after a few yards he moved over closer to the Scout Leader.
"I say, Phil," he called guardedly; "you ready to listen to the wildest kind of a notion?"
"Shoot," came the answer.
"I don't believe our visitors came on the island for that motor at all. What good would it do them?"
"It'd stop our launching the Skyrocket, for one thing."
"But there are lots of lighter things that would do that. I don't trust those two ruffians—or their boss, either."
"Well, who does?"
"That's not the point. Mr. Fulton figures that they merely want to keep those others from buying his idea, so that when the first option expires, they can. But if they could steal the plans in the meanwhile—get me?"
"I get you. Then you think that stealing the motor was just a blind, and that they are——"
"Getting us out of the road so they can take their time going through the workshop. If we're wrong, there's plenty of Scouts out trailing them—it'd be too late anyway, as it's only a few hundred feet to where they would have left their boat. What say we sneak back, see if there's a gun at the cabin, and take them by surprise when they start burglarizing the hangar?"
Phil turned about by way of answer, and stealthily they approached the cabin. A light showed dim in the invalid's room, and through the curtained window they could see Elizabeth's long braids bent over a book. She merely looked up when they stopped at the window, and at once came out the back door to where they stood.
"Is there a gun in the house?" questioned Phil.
"A thirty-two Colts," she replied. "Want it?"
"Quick as we can have it. They are on the island."
But she did not wait to hear the rest of his explanation. In a jiffy she had brought them an ugly looking revolver. "Be careful," she said as she handed it to Phil; "it shoots when you pull the trigger."
The boys stole across the narrow space between the cabin and the hangar, and flattened themselves against the log walls as they wound their way toward the little "night door" near the other end. As they passed the big sliding doors they paused an instant and pressed their ears close against the planks, but all was still. Both had an instant of disappointment, for they were counting strongly on being able to crow over the rest.
But when they came to the crack where the two doors came together, and looked within, their spirits jumped up till they hardly knew whether they were pleased or frightened. For just an instant a flash lamp had lighted up the darkness!
Not quite so cautiously now, and a good deal faster, they made their way to the little door, guided by their sense of feeling, for the night was black as the pitch in the old saying. Jerry turned the catch firmly but slowly, and the door swung open without a creak. They stepped inside.
They were now in a walled off ante-room used for small supplies. It opened into the main workshop by means of a narrow doorway. Standing in the middle of the tiny room they had a full view of the whole place. Like two monstrous fireflies a pair of dark figures darted about, ransacking Mr. Fulton's desk, tearing open the lockers and cupboards, searching out every likely nook and cranny where papers might be hid, their flashlights throwing dazzling light on each object of their suspicion.
The two boys realized suddenly that the attention of the two had been focused in their direction, and Jerry jumped back behind the shelter of the door-edge just in time to escape the blinding rays of the flashlights. Phil evidently realized that their time of grace was over and there was nothing to be gained in further delay.
With raised pistol he stepped out into the light.
"Hands up!" he ordered gruffly. "Your little game is ended for to- night."
But he had miscalculated somewhat. With startling suddenness darkness closed in about them, there was a quick rush across the littered floor, a thud as a heavy body dashed against the shed wall and crashed through the inch boards. Phil's gun roared out twice. As the two boys hastened to the gap in the wall they could hear the crash of the pair as they tore madly through the brush. Then all was still again.
But not for long. Panting from the run, Mr. Fulton and three of the Scouts came chasing like mad through the darkness.
"What's happened?" he cried when he saw it was Jerry and Phil. He listened as patiently as possible to their disconnected story, laughing grimly at the end. "Well, they'll swim it to shore, because we found their boat, and we sunk it under about a ton of stones."
"Yes, but——" began Jerry, a premonition of further disaster in his mind and on the tip of his tongue, when from the east shore of Lost Island came wild cries of rage and chagrin. "Just what I thought!" exclaimed Jerry, by way of finishing out his sentence.
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Fulton and Phil in a breath.
But Jerry did not answer. There was no need. Down the path came an excited group, shouting:
"Somebody's made off with the Big Four!"
Nothing else happened that night, but the boys had already had enough excitement to keep them awake long past their usual time for turning in. Some of them, indeed, were for starting out in pursuit of the Big Four, but Mr. Fulton promptly squelched the plan. There was little hope of finding the boat in the dense darkness.
Next morning, before breakfast, Sid Walmaly and Dave were sent out on a scouting expedition, but they were not gone long. The Big Four had been found, barely half a mile down, stranded on a sand- bar. A jagged hole in the side showed where the kidnappers had tried to scuttle the craft.
After this event, the boys settled to their work in high spirits, undeterred by the fact that the motor was still missing, although Mr. Fulton felt sure it could not have been taken from the island. Phil ventured to advance a theory, which the boys were inclined to scout but which Mr. Fulton finally decided was at least worth the time and effort it would take to try it out.
The men had had no time to carry the motor far, argued Phil. They had not gone to their boat, else they could hardly have made their way back to the hangar. They might of course have picked it up after they had been frightened away, but there had been hardly time for that. They had undoubtedly hidden it in the first place. The easiest place to hide the thing was in the river, and the closest trail to the river hit the extreme north end, where there was a steep-sided bay.
"Who's the best swimmer in the crowd?" asked Mr. Fulton. "I don't dare take very many away from the job, but we've got to have the motor"
"Jerry Ring's the best swimmer and diver in Watertown," announced Dave without hesitation. Mr. Fulton turned inquiringly to the Boy Scouts, but no one answered his questioning look until Phil at last spoke up quietly:
"I'll go along if you need another one."
"I do. You two take the Scout boat and bring her around the point. I'll go through the woods—be there in half an hour or so, when I get things running smoothly here. Be careful you don't find the gas- eater before I get there," he jested.
But it was more than half an hour before Mr. Fulton came upon the two boys, stripped to their B-V-D's and at that instant resting on the bank. He came up just in time to hear Jerry say: "I used to think I could dive! Where'd you get onto it?"
"Just Scout stuff," laughed Phil, modestly. "Every Scout in the patrol's got swimming and diving honors."
"Good!" broke in Mr. Fulton. "Dive me up that motor and I'll get you a special honor as a substitute submarine."
"We've worked down from the point, scraping bottom for twenty feet out—that's about as far as they could heave it, we figured. We've just got to the place where I'd have dived first-off if I had only one chance at it. Here goes for that leather medal," as Phil rose and poised himself for the plunge.
It was as pretty a dive as one could want to see. He split the water with a clean slash, with hardly a bubble. A minute, another, and another passed, the two on shore watching the surface expectantly. They began to grow worried.
"He's been beating me right along" confessed Jerry. "I can't come within a full minute of his ordinary dives. This one is a pippin— there he blows!"
Spouting like a young whale, Phil broke the water and came ashore in long reaching strokes.
"I tried my best!" he gasped as he pushed back his hair and rubbed the water from his eyes. "But I couldn't make it!"
"Better luck next time," encouraged Mr. Fulton. "If you don't find her in two more dives like that, why she isn't in Plum Run, that's all!"
"Find her? I was talking about lifting her. Guess we'll have to get a rope on her—she's pretty well down in the mud."
"Hurray!" shouted Jerry, giving his chum a sounding smack on the wet back. "Man the lifeboats! I chucked a rope in the bow of the boat."
Mr. Fulton stood on the bank to mark the line, while the boys pushed the boat out to where Phil had come up, some twenty feet from shore. Jerry slipped over the side, one end of the rope in his hand. He did not remain long below.
Clambering in at the stern, he shouted: "Hoist away—she's hooked!"
And there was the motor, clogged with mud, to be sure, but undamaged. Mr. Fulton stepped into the boat and they rowed quickly back to the "dock." While the two boys put on their clothes over their wet underwear, he hurried back to the workshop to see how things were going. A few minutes later they followed with the motor.
They felt, after this fortunate end of the adventure, that Mr. Fulton ought once more to be his own cheery self, but a look of gloom seemed to have settled down over his face, and his face looked haggard except when he was talking to one of the boys. Jerry finally decided to try to cheer him up.
"Luck was sure breaking our way this morning, wasn't it?" he exclaimed cheerfully as the man came up to where Jerry sat, removing the mud from their prize.
"Fine—fine," agreed Mr. Fulton, but without spirit.
"What's the trouble?" demanded Jerry, sympathetically. "Anything else gone wrong?"
"You look like the ghost of Mike Clancy's goat. Remember how you always used to be telling Tod and me to grin hardest when we were getting licked worst?"
"I sure ought to grin now, then."
"We're not licked—not by a long shot!"
"Yes we are—by about twenty-four hours. While you were gone I got word from the blacksmith. He says he can't possibly have that propeller shaft we found was snapped, welded before to-morrow afternoon late. Not if we're to have the other things he promised. He's lost his helper—quit him cold."
"No!" exclaimed Jerry, his heart sinking at least two feet. Then, with sudden suspicion, "Do you suppose——"
"I know it," interrupted Mr. Fulton. "Our two friends are working every scheme they know. Blocking our blacksmithing was one of their easiest weapons. I'm only surprised they didn't do it before."
"What can we do?"
"Submit gracefully. But I just can't face those two doubters. First they were so enthusiastic and then so suspicious, that I can't be satisfied unless I convince them. But the stuff's all off—and I told Lewis and Harris to come out to-morrow afternoon at three- thirty to see the Skyrocket make good all my claims!"
"Can't you beg off and get a little more time?"
"They'd be willing enough, I suppose. They don't seem to be in the slightest hurry. But there's that second option that begins operations after to-morrow. No, there's no loophole. All we can do is just peg ahead, and if the blacksmith comes through sooner than he expects, we may have a bare chance. I just sent Tod in to lend a hand."
The blacksmith did do better than his word, for Tod came back late in the afternoon bearing the mended shaft and two smaller parts that were urgently needed.
It took all the rest of that afternoon to lay the shaft in its ball- bearings and true it up. The propeller was still to be attached, but Mr. Fulton declared he would take no chances with that or with the final adjustments in the half light of the growing dusk.
The boys were glad to knock off. They had been working at high tension for a long while now and were beginning to feel the strain. They were all frankly sleepy, too, after the excitement of the night before. As a final precaution against a repetition of the surprise attack they all slept in the hangar, finding the hard floor an unwelcome change from their leafy beds in camp.
But the night passed quietly. With daybreak they were all astir, but the time before breakfast was spent in an invigorating swim in the Plum. Elizabeth had done herself proud in the way of pancakes this last morning, and the boys did full justice. It was almost eight o'clock before anyone returned to the hangar with any intention of working. After barely half an hour there, chiefly spent in polishing and tightening up nuts and draw-buckles, Mr. Fulton drove them all outdoors. "Chase off and play," he insisted. "Tod and I will give her the finishing touches; then you can all come back and help us push her out into the sunlight for the final inspection."
But Elizabeth called them before Mr. Fulton was ready for their services. Heaping platters of beautifully browned perch testified both to her skill and that of the boys.
"Lunch time already?" exclaimed Mr. Fulton in surprise. "Where's the morning gone to?" But he showed that if he hadn't noted the passage of time, his stomach had. As he watched the brown pile diminish under Mr. Fulton's vigorous attack, Phil threatened to go back to the river and start fishing again. "You oughtn't to be eating fish," he joked. "Birds are more your style. Better let me go out and shoot you a duck—or a sparrow; they're more in season."
But Mr. Fulton was at last satisfied, as were all the boys. He sauntered back at once to the hangar. "Guess you chaps can give me a shoulder now, and we'll take her out to daylight. After that you keep out of the way till the show starts—about four o'clock. All but two of you, that is. There's a bearing to grind on the lathe, and a couple of sets of threads to recut."
Tod could not have been driven away, so Jerry volunteered to be the other helper. The whole troop made easy work of running out the Skyrocket. After standing about admiringly a while, they all scattered, some of them, Jerry learned from their conversation, to try to teach Elizabeth how to catch bass. Jerry grinned to himself at this; he had heard Tod tell of the exploits of this slip of a girl, and no boy in camp could do more with a four-ounce bass rod than she could.
Tod and Jerry went at once at their grinding, and by two o'clock all was in readiness. Every rod and strut and bolt and screw was in place, tight as a drum. The nickel and brass of the bearings flashed in the sun; the Skyrocket looked fit as a fiddle. There was still a little gasoline in the gallon can that they had been using for testing the motor, and Tod let it gurgle into the gasoline tank that curved back on the framework just above the pilot's seat.
"Try her out, dad," he urged.
"I'll try the motor," agreed Mr. Fulton, "but I'm not going up until there's somebody around to watch her go through her paces. I've got my shoulder out of splints to-day, but I don't dare use it when there's any danger of strain. Think you're going to have the nerve to go up with me, son?"
Jerry opened his eyes wide. This was the first he had heard of any such plan as that.
"Think I'm going to let you go up alone, with a twisted wing that might give out?" demanded Tod scornfully. "Huh! I'll take her up alone if you'll let me."
"I'll let you fill her up with gas, if you're so ambitious as all that. I see an automobile throwing up the dust on the last hill of the town road. I expect it's our friends. I'll let one of the boys row me across to meet them. Ask Billings, if you can't find the wrench to unscrew the cap of the gasoline reservoir."
Billings proved to be sound asleep, napping off the effects of over- indulgence in browned perch, so the boys decided to await the return of Mr. Fulton, a search of the workshop having failed to reveal the wrench, and none of the Stillsons being big enough to take the big nut that capped the fifty-gallon tank sunk in the ground on the shady north side of the hangar. So they sat down beside it and waited for Mr. Fulton to come back with his visitors.
They finally appeared, Lewis and Harris standing about and listening in unenthusiastic silence as Mr. Fulton glowingly explained the whyness of the various devices and improvements that made the Skyrocket a real invention. They did not even venture an occasional question, although it was easy to see that they were impressed.
"What are they made of? Wood?" exclaimed Jerry in fierce impatience. "Do you know—if it wasn't that we've simply got to beat out those other fellows, I'd almost like to see these two sleepies get left. I don't like them a little bit!"
"Huh! Ask me if I do. They give me the willies. Never did like them, and ever since they acted so nasty about that accident I just plumb hate 'em. You'd think dad was trying to sandbag them or something like that. Just listen to them grouching around. I'd hate to be a woman and married to one of them and have dinner late."
Jerry had seated himself on the top of the reservoir, the cap between his legs. He caught hold of it with his two hands. "It's too blamed bad your dad couldn't hitch up with Uncle Sam!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and if you believe what the papers say, we're going to need it, too. We might be mixed up in the big war any day."
"Well, I expect we'd better not sit here gassing any longer. Tod, chase over and ask your dad where that wrench is—unless you've got a notion I can twist this thing off with my hands." He gave a playful tug as if to carry out his boast.
"Say!" he cried, "what do you know about this!"
"About what?" asked Tod lazily, a dozen feet away on the way to his father.
"This," answered Jerry, giving the big cap a twirl with his forefinger. "Some careful of your gasoline you people are!" The cap was loose.
"Something funny about that," declared Tod, coming back. "I saw Billings screw that on last time myself—with the wrench."
There was something decidedly funny about it, as it turned out. At Tod's alarmed call Mr. Fulton came on the run. "It's been tampered with," was his immediate decision. "Screw on the pump, boys, and force up a gallon or so, If there isn't water in that gas we're the luckiest folks alive. I might have known those crooks had a final shot in their locker!"
"What's the idea?" asked Mr. Harris, with the first interest he had showed.
"Somebody's trying to block the game, that's what!" sputtered Mr. Fulton. "Here, boys, take the canfull in and put it in the shop engine. If she can take it I guess we're worrying for nothing."
For a moment or so it looked as if that were the case; the engine chugged away in its usual steady manner. But once the gasoline was gone that the boys had been unable to empty out of its tank, it began to kick a little. Within another minute it had stopped dead.
"Show's over," announced Mr. Fulton grimly. "It's way after three o'clock now, and we can't hope to get a new supply from town this side of dark. If we just hadn't sent your auto back!"
"You mean to tell us that you cannot go up—that there will be no flight!" cried Mr. Lewis, making up for all his previous lack of excitement in one burst of protest. "But, man—it's the last day of the option."
"It's worse than that," countered Mr. Fulton. "It's the day before the beginning of a new option, held by the people who watered that gas—and at least a dozen other sneaking tricks."
"But you told us that you would—why, you guaranteed us a trial flight."
"I said you didn't have to buy till you'd seen it work, yes. I'm in your hands, gentlemen. After midnight to-night I'm in other hands— and you're going to lose the chance of your lifetime to secure for your government something that may prove the deciding factor in that terrific war you're carrying on over there. I'm sure you don't doubt my good faith."
"Faith! It's performances we want."
"Give me gas and I'll give you a demonstration that can't help but convince you. I can't use my motor on water. I was willing to risk my neck—and my boy's—by going up and trying this contraption with my left hand—but I can't accomplish the impossible."
"But surely you don't expect us to buy a pig in a poke——"
"This is no pig—it's a hawk. Will you do this? Will you buy the machine and the idea on approval? I'm pledged. If it isn't sold by night to you, to-morrow those other people will come with cash in hand——"
"Harris, you know," drawled Mr. Lewis, "I half believe the fellow's trying to flimflam us, you know. How do we know?"
"How do you know!" Mr. Fulton's eyes flashed fire. "I'll have you know I'm a man of honor."
"Sure—sure," agreed Mr. Harris conciliatingly. "But that's not the idea, old chap. We don't buy this for ourselves, you understand. We're merely agents, and responsible to our chief. What'd we say if we came back with a bag of pot metal for our money?"
"What will you say to your conscience when your enemy drops destruction onto your brave countrymen in the trenches from the Fulton Aeroplane? That's what you'd better be asking yourselves."
"But we've got to be cautious."
"Cautious! If you saw the goose that laid the golden egg getting off the nest, you'd hold the egg up to a candle to see if it was fresh!"
"Well, now, Mr. Fulton——" began Mr. Harris, when he was interrupted by Jerry, who had been holding himself in as long as was humanly possible.
"Don't let's waste any more time talking, Mr. Fulton. Tod and I have got a scheme that will pull us out on top yet—even if it does mean helping these doubters against their will!"
THE BIG PLAY
"Look here, Mr. Fulton," began Jerry, almost stammering in his eagerness. "It wouldn't be any trick at all to get over to the interurban tracks in time to catch the four o'clock northbound. That gets to Watertown at four twenty-five—say half-past. We ought to be able to get the gas and rout out a machine to haul it in inside another half hour. That's five o'clock. Then an hour certainly would see us back here, with a good hour and more of daylight left."
"I've gone over all that in my mind a dozen times. But I've also spent a little time figuring what these men would be doing in the meanwhile. There's just one place in Watertown that keeps any quantity of gasoline—the rest buy of him. And he'd die of fright if he should be caught with more than a hundred gallons at one time."
"But we don't need more than five!" exploded Tod.
"Sure, son, sure. But suppose somebody just ahead of you made it his business to buy the hundred—how about that?"
"But there's a chance," objected Jerry, returning to the attack. "We might be able to get away without their seeing us."
"Don't worry; they're watching every move we make."
"Then I've got another scheme. See if you can pick it full of holes too." There was more than a touch of impatience in Jerry's voice. "They're watching this side, that's sure; and they know we're bound to figure on either Watertown or Chester. We'll fool them. I'll swim across to the other side, reach a telephone, get my dad, who's at Corliss these days on business. There's a Standard Oil tank at Corliss. Dad'll start the gas out inside of twenty minutes——"
"Corliss is a good two hours' trip by auto, my boy. It would take at least half an hour to get the message through, and another to get the gas here from the road. That means at least seven o'clock, and it would be dark before we were ready to go up."
"All right," agreed Jerry, refusing to give up. "Suppose it does get dark: there's such a thing as flying by night, isn't there? All we've got to do is to build a dozen flaring bonfires to see by——"
"Now you're talking!" exclaimed Mr. Fulton with sudden enthusiasm. "You've hit it. Not brush—that would smoke us out. But there are ten or a dozen open air torches here like those they use at street shows, and there's not enough water in the gasoline to hurt it for that purpose. Moreover, we can switch our engine onto that dynamo in the shop, and we'll string incandescent lights all through the trees; we've got plenty of them. There's at least a mile of bare copper wire about the place—what you two standing with your mouths wide open for? Thought you were going to get that gas! Where in thunder are all those boys?"
"Here they come—tired of waiting out there in the sun, I guess. So long, dad; I'm going with Jerry."
"You are not. You're going to be chief electrician. If Jerry can't put through his part of the job alone he doesn't deserve credit for having thought of the whole scheme."
The first part of Jerry's task proved easy enough. It took him well over the half hour Mr. Fulton had predicted, to find a farmhouse with a telephone, and Central seemed an unusually long time in ringing through to the office Jerry's father had been making his headquarters for the past weeks. Then it developed that Mr. Ring was out at a conference of business men. Jerry took the telephone number the girl gave him, and repeated it to Central, who again took her time in giving the connection. Jerry was about ready to drop with nervousness before he finally heard his father's gruff voice at the other end of the line.
The words simply tumbled over themselves as Jerry told his story; fortunately, Mr. Ring was shrewd enough to guess the half that Jerry jumbled in his eagerness.
"Where are you—so I can call you back?" was Mr. Ring's only reply.
Fifteen minutes later the telephone rang. Jerry answered, to hear: "Ten gallons of gasoline, double strained, left here five minutes ago on a fast delivery truck. It ought to reach the road opposite Lost Island inside of two hours. You be there to tell them what to do. Good luck, Jerry—I'm going back to that conference. This skylark may cost me a five hundred dollar profit."
"It isn't a skylark—it's a skyrocket, and Mr. Fulton will pay you double over!" But it was into a dead transmitter he shouted it, for Mr. Ring had not waited.
Jerry did not wait long either, but raced across fields and through woods to the river road. He found a shady spot, which he established as his headquarters, but he was too restless to wait there long. They seemed a mighty long two hours. The sun sank lower and lower; Jerry heard a bell ringing far off, calling the farm hands to supper—he was getting hungry himself. Shadows began to darken, the clouds flared up in a sudden crimson, first low down on the horizon, then high up in the sky. The sun dropped out of sight behind the trees.
Away down the road sounded a faint drumming noise that grew nearer and louder until around the bend whirred a dust-raising black monster that came to a halt a few feet away from the boy who had sprung out, shouting and waving his arms. "You waiting for gasoline?" a grouchy voice demanded. "Are you Mr. Ring?"
"I sure am!"
"Well, come on back here and help h'ist it out. We're in a hurry to get back to town—why it's only a kid!" as Jerry came up. "Who's going to help you handle it? It's in two five-gallon cans."
"I guess I can manage it all right. I've got some friends waiting down on the river bank."
"All right; it's your funeral. There you are, sealed, signed and delivered." The motor roared out, then settled to a steady hum; the man backed and turned and soon was swallowed up in the dust and the growing dark.
Jerry braced his shoulders for the stiff carry to the Plum, a five- gallon can in each hand. He was willing to stop now and then for a breathing spell, but at last he set the load down on the narrow fringe of sandy beach. Cupping his hands about his mouth, he sent a lusty shout ringing across the water; he was too weary to swim it, and there did not seem to be much need for further concealment. There was an instant answer, showing that the boys had been awaiting his signal. The splash of oars told him that the boat was on the way, and he felt suddenly glad that he could now think of a few minutes' rest.
It proved to be Dave and Tod and Phil in the Scout boat. They made quick work of loading in the two cans, and then they all piled in, Dave and Tod at the oars. They were perhaps halfway across when Jerry asked, anxiously, it seemed:
"Can't you get any more speed out of her, fellows?"
"What's eating you? It's as dark now as it's going to get," answered Dave, at the same time letting his oars float idly up against the side of the boat.
"I'm worried, that's why," exclaimed Jerry, slipping over and pushing Dave out of his seat. "Do you hear anything?"
They all listened, Tod holding his oars out of the water. Sure enough, a purring, deeply muffled sound came faintly across the water. It was unmistakably a motorboat.
"Some camper," suggested Dave.
"It sounds more like—trouble," declared Phil, a significant accent on the word. "The enemy, I bet, and trying to cut us off."
"Well, we've got a big start on them. They're a long way off" again Dave volunteered.
"You mean you're a long way off. They've got her tuned down—she isn't over two hundred yards away and coming like blue blazes. They mean mischief—they aren't showing a single light. What's our plan?"
"Keep cool," advised Jerry. "They'll probably try to bump us. We'll row along easy-like, with a big burst of speed at the last second. Before they can turn and come at us again, we can make shore. Steady now!"
The drone of the motor was almost upon them. The dusk lay heavy over the water; they could see nothing. Louder and louder sounded the explosions, but now they had slowed up. A dim shape showed through the gloom.
"All set!" came the low command from Jerry, just as the boat, muffler cut out, the engine at top speed, and volleying revolutions and deafening explosions, seemed to leap through the water.
"Down hard!" cried Jerry, lunging with his oars. Tod grunted as he put all his strength into the pull. The Scout boat seemed to lift itself bodily out of the water as it plunged forward—only inches to spare as a slim hull slipped by the stern.
"Yah!" yelled Phil, jumping to his feet and shaking his fist wildly. "You're beat!"
The Scout boat hit shore just then, and Phil, caught off his guard, took a header and landed astride one of the gasoline cans. "I wonder if that was a torpedo," he grunted as he picked himself up.
"No," chuckled Tod. "Just a reminder not to crow while your head is still on the block."
The boys wasted no time in getting the gasoline out of the boat and up through the bushes, sending a lusty shout ahead of them to tell the waiting islanders that they were coming.
"Over on the far side of the clearing," directed Tod, who was carrying one side of a can with Jerry. "We hauled the Skyrocket over there as the ground is more level and free from stumps."
They found the whole crew waiting about the airship, their eager faces lighted up by the flaring flames of one of the gasoline torches. "Hooray for Jerry, the Gasoline Scout!" they shouted as the boys dropped their loads at the first convenient spot.
"Bully for you!" exclaimed Mr. Fulton, coming over and clapping Jerry on the shoulder. "Have any trouble?"
"You better guess we did," broke in Dave. "A motorboat tried its best to run us down."
Mr. Fulton looked grave as he listened to the tale of their adventure. As Dave finished a spirited account of their narrow escape, the man turned to Tod with:
"Guess you'd better look after filling the tank, son, while I chase over to the house and get my goggles and my harness," referring to a leather brace the doctor had brought him a few days before to use until his shoulder grew stronger. Unfortunately, the thing was not properly made and it held the arm too stiffly, so Mr. Fulton used it only when he absolutely had to.
The boys all wanted to have a hand in this final operation and consequently it took twice as long as was necessary to fill the tank. Enough was spilled, as Tod said, to run the Skyrocket ten miles. In the meanwhile, one of the boys took the small can and went the rounds and filled all the torches with gasoline, while another came close behind him and started them going.
Tod finally left the rest to finish the job of filling the Skyrocket, and disappeared in the direction of the workshop. Within five minutes the boys heard the steady chugging of "Old Faithful" as they had named the shop motor. An instant later the whole field was suddenly lighted up as the twenty incandescent lights flashed up brightly.
"Some illumination!" cried Jerry, delightedly, turning to Mr. Harris, who happened to be nearest him.
"Yes," agreed the man coldly, "but it's all on the ground."
"Sure. Because there's nothing up in the air to see. Wait till the old Skyrocket shoots up," and Jerry walked over to where the boys were standing. "Old grouch," he said to himself. "You'd think he didn't want to see us win out."
Tod came hurrying back from the hangar. "Where's dad?" he asked.
"Hasn't got back yet."
"That's funny. I saw him leave the cabin as I went in to start up the dynamo. He called something to me about hurrying so as not to give those fellows any time to think up new tricks. Who's that over there with Mr. Harris?"
"Phil, I guess. Your dad hasn't come out yet or we'd have seen him— it's light as day."
"What's the cause of the delay now?" came from behind them. Mr. Lewis had approached the group unobserved.
"Waiting for my father," answered Tod. "Guess he's having a hard time with his harness. I'd have stopped for him only I thought he'd have come back ahead of me. I'll chase over now and see if he needs any help with his straps."
Tod ambled off across the torch-lighted open. It was a weird sight, that flaring line of torches, the paler gleam of the electric lights hung high in the trees, the animated faces of the excited boys, the two stolid men, and the adventurous looking Skyrocket, its engines throbbing, the tiny searchlight ahead of the pilot's seat sending a fan-shaped road of white light into the trees. It was like a scene on the stage—just before the grand climax.
Tod furnished the climax for this scene. Hardly had he disappeared within the door of the cabin, before he came running out again, shouting at the top of his voice:
There was a note in his cry that went through the boys like an electric shock. It was anger and fear and a dozen other emotions at once. They fairly flew across the hundred yards or so to the cabin, crowding in till the main room was filled.
"What is it, Tod?" cried Phil, as his cousin flung open the door to the tiny lean-to bedroom. Tod's face was pasty white and his eyes bulged out.
"They've—got dad! I'm afraid he's—killed!"
"No!" exclaimed Jerry, pushing past.
But the first look made him believe the worst. On the floor, toppled over in the chair to which he had been bound, lay Mr. Fulton, his injured shoulder twisted way out of place, his distorted face the color of old ivory. Gagged and tightly laced to the bed lay Mr. Billings, his features working in wildest rage.
But Mr. Fulton was not dead. He came to under the deft handling of Phil and his fellow Scouts, but it was Mr. Billings who told the story of the attack.
While Mr. Fulton had been struggling with the strap that held his shoulder-brace in place, two burly men had burst through the doorway and quickly overpowered him, handicapped as he was by his useless arm. They had bound him to the chair, and then, after gagging and tying Billings, had calmly proceeded to ransack the room, one holding a pistol at Fulton's head while the other searched.
Papers scattered about on the floor, wrecked furniture and broken boxes, testified to the thoroughness of the hunt. But they had found nothing until they had thought to go through the bed on which Billings lay. Under the mattress was a portfolio packed with blueprints and plans. That was when Mr. Fulton had fallen; he had tried to free himself from his bonds and get at the two, no matter how hopeless the fight.
As Mr. Billings finished the story, Mr. Fulton opened his eyes weakly. "Tod——" he gasped—"where's Tod?"
"Here, dad," coming close beside him where he lay on a big pile of blankets.
"Look quick and see if they found the little flat book—you know."
Tod rummaged hastily through the disordered mess of drawings littered over the bed and floor. "Not here," he confessed finally.
The man gave a deep groan. "We're done for, then. It had the contract folded up in it. And it had the combination to the safe at the house, and there was the list of the specifications Mr. Billings made out for me when we packed away the first draft of the Skyrocket."
"What difference does that make, if they've already got the blueprints'?" asked Jerry.
"Oh-h!" cried Mr. Fulton, despair in his voice, "don't you see? The aeroplane itself was made here; Billings did all the work on it. But Tod and I did all the experimental work at home. All the data concerning the invention is back there in the safe!"
"And they're already halfway there in their motorboat!" groaned Phil.
But Mr. Fulton made no answer. His eyes were closed; he had fainted dead away.
Tod jumped up from where he had been kneeling beside his father. "Look after him, Phil," he directed briskly. "Jerry, you come with me. Those villains have got the contract and they will soon have dad's secret—it means that we're cleaned out. There's only one thing to do in a tight place like this, and you and I are going to do it—if you've got the nerve!"
"I've got it," responded Jerry quickly. "What is it?"
"We're going after those crooks in the Skyrocket!"
A CLOSE FINISH
The incidents of the next hour or so would be hard to picture from the standpoint of Jerry's emotions. As they half ran over to where the Skyrocket stood ready, snorting like an impatient racehorse, his heart was filled with a kind of frightened determination. Once he was strapped into his seat, his pulses stopped galloping so fast, but as Tod began an endless fumbling with levers, plainly as nervous as his chum, Jerry's nerve oozed out at his fingertips; he might have climbed out had it not been for the straps—and the two men, who now came forward and insisted that the boys give up their hair- brained plan. Jerry would have been killed by inches rather than give in to them.
A sudden terrifying lurch, a dizzy parting company with solid earth that almost made Jerry part company with his stomach. He yelled, but it might easily have been through excitement rather than fear. He hoped the two and Tod would think so. He dared not look down—all he could do was grip the rod before him with a death-defying clutch. Faster and faster, higher and higher they mounted, the air whistling by them like mad.
"Can't you slow her down a little?" he yelled in Tod's ear, but Tod gave no answer. He could hardly have heard above the roar of the motor and the sickening whine of the propellers—not to intention a steady drumming of taut wires and tightly stretched silk. "Can't you tune her down?" Jerry yelled, louder this time, "and get her level?"
"Can't!" shouted Tod. "I've forgotten which handle to pull, even if I knew which way to pull it!"
He tried first one and then another, but although they lurched dangerously, first this way and then that, they kept mounting into the sky. Finally there was but one chance left—Tod cautiously drew the lever toward him, then with an "Ah!" heard above all the noise, brought it all the way. The Skyrocket quivered, dropped to an even keel, and then turned her nose earthward. But Tod was ready for that. Halfway back he shoved, the lever and once more the Skyrocket rode level.
They had left Lost Island far behind, but in which direction they could not be sure. A long streak of flame to the left told them that a railroad lay there, and it could be none other than the Belt Line that ran into Watertown. Through a rift in the clouds a cluster of stars showed briefly—the Big Dipper. "See!" shouted Tod. "We're headed north, all right"
They were going much slower now, and the noise was not so deafening; they could talk without splitting their throats. Dimly they made out Plum Run directly beneath them, while a haze of lights indicated Watertown, the goal. Even as they watched it seemed to be drawing nearer.
"Were you scared?" asked Tod.
"Stiff," confessed Jerry. "You?"
"Should say. Bet my hair's turned white. Where'll we land?"
"Where can you?"
"Don't know. River, most likely. Say, we're lucky we're alive. I thought I knew how to run it until we got off the ground. Then I found I'd forgotten more than I ever learned."
"Did you ever run it before?"
"With dad watching, yes. Once, that is. But I've faked running it a hundred times there in the hangar. Suppose we could come down in your back lot? It's level—and big enough, maybe."
"We might hit a horse. Dad's got Daisy in there nights."
"We'll have to chance it, I guess. But you hold on good and tight, because I'll probably pull the wrong strings at the last minute. Where are we now?"
"That's the mill yonder, I think. We want to swing west a little now. Suppose they are at the house by now?"
"Most likely. They had a good start. Shall we get your dad?"
"Uhuh. And several others—with guns. Better have old Bignold." Mr. Bignold was the only night policeman in Watertown. "There's the city limits, that switch-tower on the Belt Line. Hadn't we better come down a bit. I don't like the idea of falling so far."
Tod obediently let the Skyrocket slide down a few hundred feet, till they were just above the tree-tops. They could see that their arrival was causing a commotion below. They could even hear the cries of alarm. "Bet they think we're a comet," chuckled Tod.
Now he began to circle a bit, for it was hard to identify houses and streets in the dark and from this unfamiliar view. At last Jerry gave a shout of joy. "There's our house—and I bet that's dad coming out to see what's up. Hey, dad!" he yelled, but the running figure below made no answer.
"Well, here goes for Daisy!" chuckled Tod, at the same time pointing the Skyrocket earthward so sharply that it made Jerry gasp. Down, down they shot, the black underneath seeming to be rushing up to crush them. At the last Tod managed to lessen their slant, but even then they struck the ground with a force that almost overturned the machine. Over the rough ground the landing wheels jolted, but slower and slower. A final disrupting jar, and they stopped dead.
Not so the object they had struck. With a wild squeal of fear poor Daisy struggled to her feet and went tearing out of sight and hearing at better speed than she had shown for years.
"That'll bring dad on the jump," declared Jerry, climbing painfully from his seat. "Say, to-morrow I'm going to take a good look at this rod I've been holding to; I'll bet it shows fingermarks."
"What's the meaning of that rumpus out there?" demanded a stern voice.
"Oh, dad—we need you the worst way."
"That you, Jerry? What in tarnation you up to anyhow?"
"We're not up any longer—we're glad to get back to earth."
"Eh?" said Mr. Ring, perplexed, as he came up to them. "What ye driving at? What was that thing that just sailed over the house? Did you see it? I heard Daisy going on out here like the devil before day—or was it you two who were pestering her? What's that contraption you're sitting on?"
"The same thing that just sailed over, dad," laughed Jerry, then, unable to hold in any longer: "We came from Lost Island in Mr. Fulton's aeroplane that he's just invented, and there's robbers in Mr. Fulton's house, and we want you to get a gun and Mr. Bignold and all the neighbors, and go down and get them!" Jerry stopped, but only because he was out of breath.
"Get them? Who are them? And what in thunder you two doing in an aero——" "Oh, dad," Jerry almost screamed in his fear that delay might make them too late, "don't stop to ask questions. Let's get to the house and Tod can be telephoning while I tell you what it's all about." He caught hold of his father's arm to hurry him along. "There are two men breaking into Mr. Fulton's safe this minute, most likely, and we mustn't let them get away."
"Well, what in thunder's Fulton got in a safe that any robber would want?" grumbled Mr. Ring, but stepping briskly along nevertheless. "Two men, you say? Guess Bignold and I can handle them. I've got my old horse-pistol—if it doesn't blow out backwards."
They had reached the house, and Tod went in to telephone, while Mr. Ring went upstairs to get his revolver, which, instead of being a horse pistol, was an automatic of the latest type. Jerry stopped him for a moment at the stair door. "I'm going ahead. I'll be just outside the gate over yonder, keeping an eye on the place to see they don't get away." He was gone before Mr. Ring could object.
But the house was dark and silent. Not a sign of unwelcome visitors was to be seen. All the windows were tightly closed; both doors were shut. Jerry felt uncomfortable. Suppose there was no one there—had been no one there? The two men would roast him and Tod unmercifully. He heard a light step on the walk behind him and turned, expecting his father. His words of greeting died in his throat.
Two men, looking unbelievably big and threatening in the darkness, were almost upon him. He tried to shout for help. His tongue seemed paralyzed and his throat refused to give out a sound. Jerry was scared stiff. He knew at once that these two were the men they had come to capture, and somehow he had a feeling that they knew that, too.
Not a word was said. Jerry had backed up against the gatepost, his fists doubled up at his sides.
The two pressed in close against him. He felt powerful hands reaching out to crush the life out of him, but still he made no outcry. Then one of them spoke.
"You came in the airship?"
Jerry started, for the man's English was perfect, though heavy and foreign sounding in an unexplainable way. He repeated his question when the boy did not answer at once.
"Yes—yes," stammered Jerry, hoping that perhaps he might gain time.
"You came alone?" insinuated the same speaker as before, but now an ominous note of threat in his voice.
Jerry was in a quandary. He realized that if he told them that he had come alone, that they would kill him. On the other hand, if he told them the truth, they would get away.
"Answer!" commanded the man, catching Jerry by the throat and shaking him till the back of Jerry's eyeballs seemed to be red, searing flames. A sudden rage came over him, numbed as he was by the pressure on his windpipe. With a mighty wrench he freed himself. Kicking out with all his might, he caught the farther man full in the pit of the stomach. He fell, all doubled up. But the man who had choked Jerry, laughed scornfully as lie caught the boy's arms and gave the one a twist that almost tore it from its socket.
"More spirit than brains," he laughed derisively. "I'll break you in two over my knee if you make another break like that."
"You'll kindly put up your hands in the meanwhile," suggested a pleasant but firm voice which Jerry could hardly recognize as that of his father. "I think I'll take a little hand in this game myself."
"Look out, dad—there's one on the ground!" warned Jerry. "I kicked him in the stomach."
"Pleasant way to treat visitors. Why didn't you invite them into the house, son? Oblige me, gentlemen." He waved his automatic in the general direction of the Fulton front porch. "I'd ask you to my own house, but, you know, womenfolks——"
Jerry stepped out of the way. His assailant passed him and turned to go in the gateway. Then something happened, just what, Jerry was not sure. Afterwards it developed that he had been picked up bodily and hurled full at his father. Mr. Ring went down like a tenpin when the ball hits dead-center. As he fell, his finger pressed the trigger and six roaring shots flashed into the air. When father and son regained their feet, they had a last dim glimpse of two forms in rapid flight. Then the darkness swallowed them up.
"We bungled it," said Mr. Ring, ruefully feeling of a certain soft spot in his body where Jerry's weight had landed.
"And here come Tod—and Chief Bignold, just a minute too late."
"Hi there, Mr. Ring," called the burly constable. "What is it—a riot?"
"A massacre, but all the victims escaped. Two blooming foreigners trying to steal an airship out of Mr. Fulton's safe down there in his cellar—wasn't that what you said, boys?"
The boys tried to explain, but both men seemed to insist on taking the whole affair as a joke, though they talked it over seriously enough when the youngsters were out of hearing. Tod opened the door and let them inside the house, but did not go in himself, motioning to Jerry to stay beside him.
"You two youngsters chase along over to the house and tell Mrs. Ring to give you your nursing bottles and put you to bed."
"Huh," snorted Tod, "we daren't leave the Skyrocket unguarded."
"Why it's Fulton's kid," exclaimed Bignold, for the first time recognizing him. "Say, you tell your dad that he's been stirring up this town till it's wild with excitement. Three telegrams this day, not to mention a special delivery letter that they've been hunting all over the country for him with. And on top of that, an important little man with brass buttons and shoulder-straps, struttin' all over the place and askin' everybody if he's Mr. Fulton, the inventor. When'd your dad get to be an inventor?"
"Well, he had to be born sometime," answered Tod dryly.
"Eh? Well, you'd best tell that same little busy-bee where your father can be found. And the telegrams; don't forget them."
"I won't," answered Tod, starting off toward town on the run. "Watch the old Skyrocket till I get back, will you, Jerry?" and he was gone.
* * * * * * *
Two stiff, sleepy, disgusted boys sat up in their nest of blankets and looked at each other through the framework of the Skyrocket next morning at something like seven o'clock.
"And you said you wouldn't go to sleep," each said slowly and accusingly to the other, then both grinned sheepishly.
"Oh, well, the machine's still here, so why grouch over a couple hours' sleep?" Tod defended. "Huh—I suppose not. But I'll bet dad had a good laugh over us when he came down here about breakfast time. What's that pinned to your blanket?"
Tod crawled out of his nest and pulled loose the scrap of paper that had been pinned in the region of his big toe.
"It's a note. Want to hear it? It says, 'Mother Ring tells me pancakes are ready for you when you've finished your guard-mount. Signed—A Burglar.' That's sure one on us."
It was scant justice that the two did to breakfast that morning. Four telegrams were burning holes in Tod's pockets; he could hardly keep from tearing them open, so curious was he to know their contents. Even the newspaper that Mrs. King brought in and laid beside their plates, could not entirely hold their attention, in spite of the startling news headlined on the front page. "BREAK WITH GERMANY—U. S. on Verge of Being Drawn Into World War."
"We'll take it with us and read it after we get there. No—not another cake, Mrs. Ring. Excuse us, please—we've got to go."
"It seems a shame——" began Tod, when they were once more outside, then asked abruptly: "Willing to take a licking, Jerry?"
"And go back on the Skyrocket? Did you think we were going any other way? And leave the machine here for anybody to come along and study out—or steal? Not much! I'll take a dozen lickings!"
But he didn't. When the Skyrocket finally circled about Lost Island and settled down over the narrow landing field as easily as a homing pigeon, to come to a stop with hardly a jar, it was bringing news to Mr. Fulton that was bound to soften the heart of any dad.
Tod's father was out in front of the little cabin, a bit pale and shaky, but cheerful. His face lighted up wonderfully when he saw the Skyrocket aground and the two boys safe. He tried to rise to greet them, but had to be satisfied to wave his hand instead. The two boys came running over to where he sat, eager to tell their story.
"What's happened?" Mr. Fulton asked excitedly before they could begin. He was pointing at the newspaper Jerry had been waving wildly as they raced across the open.
"War—maybe—with Germany! But we've more important news than that— for us just now, at least. Telegrams—four of them—look. And an officer's been looking for you——"
"Police?" asked Mr. Fulton gravely.
"Army!" exploded Tod and Jerry together. "Bet it's about the——"
They paused, for Mr. Fulton was not listening to them. He had torn one of the telegraph envelopes open and was reading the brief message, his face going first red and then white.
"What's all the excitement?" demanded a slow voice in which there was a trace of resentment. It was Mr. Harris, who had appeared in the doorway of the cabin.
"Nothing much," answered Mr. Fulton. "Nothing at all. In fact, the excitement's all over. I'm certainly very glad that you balked yesterday on buying that 'pig in a poke,' my dear baronet. It seems," flapping the opened telegram against his other hand, "it seems, my very dear sir, that the American government, being confronted by a situation which bears more than a promise of war, has offered to buy the ideas which are embodied in the Skyrocket."
"Hooray for Uncle Sammy!" shouted Tod.
All the boys had come crowding around, slapping Tod and Jerry wildly on the back and cheering till their throats were hoarse. It was fully five minutes before anyone could make himself heard above the din. Finally Mr. Fulton raised his hand for a chance to be heard, and after one rousing shout of "Three cheers for the Scouts of the Air!" the noisy crew quieted down.
"Phil asked me one day if I'd promise you all a front seat at the circus and a ride on the elephant. Well, I'm going to keep my word, I've got a piece of timber about forty miles up the river from here, and on it there's a log cabin and one of the greatest little old fishing lakes in the country. I'm going to take you all up there for a month of the best sport you ever had."
"Bully for you, dad!" shouted Tod, then turned to Jerry with:
"And while we're there, what say we learn the first principles of Boy Scouting, so that when we get back to Watertown we can organize a patrol of——"
"The Boy Scouts of the Air!" finished Dave and Frank and Jerry in a breath.