THE GIRL AVIATORS' MOTOR BUTTERFLY
BY MARGARET BURNHAM
AUTHOR OF "THE GIRL AVIATORS AND THE PHANTOM AIRSHIP," "THE GIRL AVIATORS ON GOLDEN WINGS," "THE GIRL AVIATORS' SKY CRUISE," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHARLES L. WRENN
I. Preparations and Plans.
II. Off on the Flight.
III. Little Wren and the Gipsies.
IV. The Approach of the Storm.
V. Peggy's Thoughtfulness Saves the Farm.
VI. The Girl Aviators in Deadly Peril.
VII. A Stop for the Night.
VIII. Roy Makes an Enemy.
IX. Jimsy Falls Asleep.
X. Peggy's Intuition.
XI. A Mean Revenge!
XII. The Finding of the "Butterfly"
XIII. Prisoners in the Hut.
XIV. What's To Be Done with The Wren?
XV. A Rambunctious Ram.
XVI. An Invitation to Race.
XVII. The Twisted Spark Plug.
XVIII. In Search of a New Plug.
XIX. The Trap.
XX. An Attack in the Air.
XXI. Peggy's Splendid Race.
XXII. Peggy's Generosity.
XXIII. The Moonshiners and the Aeroplane.
XXIV. Mr. Parker's Story.
XXV. The Wren Disappears.
XXVI. Captured by Gipsies.
The Girl Aviators' Motor Butterfly
PREPARATIONS AND PLANS.
"It will be another 'sky cruise,' longer and daintier and lovelier!" exclaimed Jess Bancroft, clapping her hands. "Peggy, you're nothing if not original."
"Well, there are automobile tours and sailing trips, and driving parties—" "And railroad journeys and mountain tramps—" interrupted Jess, laughing.
"Yes, and there are wonderful, long-distance migrations of birds, so why not a cross-country flight of motor butterflies?"
"It would be splendid fun," agreed Jess eagerly; "we could take the Golden Butterfly and the Red Dragon and——" "Don't forget that Bess Marshall has a small monoplane, too, now. I guess she would go in with us."
"Not a doubt of it. Let's go and find the boys and see what they say to it."
"No need to go after them, here they come now."
As the golden-haired Peggy spoke, two good-looking youths came round the corner of the old-fashioned house at Sandy Bay, Long Island, where the two young Prescotts made their home with their maiden aunt, Miss Sally Prescott. One of the lads was Roy Prescott, Peggy's brother, and the other was Jimsy Bancroft.
"Well, girls, what's up now?" inquired Roy, as both girls sprang to their feet, their faces flushed and eyes shining.
"Oh, nothing particular," rejoined Peggy, with assumed indifference, "except that we've just solved the problem of what to do with the rest of the summer."
"And what's that,—lie in hammocks and indulge in ice-cream sodas and chocolates?" asked Jimsy mockingly.
"No, indeed, you impertinent person; the young lady of the twentieth century has left all that far behind her," was Jess's Parthian shot, "for proof I refer you to our adventures on the Great Alkali."
"Hello! what's this?" asked Roy, holding up a dainty cardboard box, and giving vent to a mischievous smile.
"Chocolates!" cried Jimsy.
"It was chocolates," corrected Peggy reproachfully.
"And yet shall be," declared Jimsy, producing from some mysterious place in a long auto coat another box, beribboned and decorated like the first.
"Jimsy, you're an angel!" cried both girls at once.
"So I've been told before," responded the imperturbable Jimsy, "but I never really believed it till now."
Peggy rewarded him for the compliment by popping a chocolate into his mouth.
Gravely munching it, Jimsy proceeded to interrogation.
"And how did you solve the problem of what to do with the rest of the summer?" he asked.
For answer Peggy pointed to the sky, a delicate blue dome flecked with tiny cloudlets like cherub's wings.
"By circling way up yonder in the cloudfields," she laughed.
"But that's no novelty," objected Roy, "we've been up 5,000 feet already, and——" "But we're talking about a tour through cloudland," burst out Jess, unable to retain the secret any longer, "a sort of Cook's tour above the earth."
"Wow!" gasped both boys. "There's nothing slow," added Roy, "in that or about you two. And, incidentally, just read this letter I got this morning, or rather I'll read it for you."
So saying Roy produced from his coat a letter closely written in an old-fashioned handwriting. It was as follows:
"My Dear Niece and Nephew: No doubt you will be surprised to hear from your Uncle Jack. Possibly you will hardly recall him. This has, in a great measure, been his own fault as, since your poor father's death, I have not paid the attention I should to my correspondence.
"This letter, then, is to offer what compensation lies in my power for my neglect. Having read in the papers of your wonderful flying feats in Nevada it struck me that you and your young friends might like to pay me a 'flying trip,' making the excursion via aeroplane.
"We are to have some flying contests in Marysville during the latter part of the month, and you might care to participate in them. Of course I expect your Aunt Sallie to accompany you. Hoping sincerely to see you, I am
"Your affectionate uncle, "James Parker. "Marysville, North Carolina."
As Roy concluded the reading the quartet of merry youngsters exchanged delighted glances. As if by magic here was an objective point descried for their projected motor flight.
"Well, that's what I call modern magic," declared Jimsy glowingly; "consider me as having accepted the invitation."
"Accepting likewise for me, of course," said Jess, shaking her black locks and blinking round, expectant eyes.
"Of course," struck in Peggy affectionately, "the Girl Aviators cannot be parted."
Just at this moment came a whirring sound from high in the air above them. Looking up, they saw a dainty green monoplane, with widespread wings and whirring propeller, descending to earth. An instant later the machine had come to a halt on the lawn, alighting as lightly as wind-blown gossamer. In the machine was seated a pretty girl of about Peggy's age, though rather stouter. In harmony with the color of the machine she drove, the newly arrived girl aviator wore a green aviation costume, with a close-fitting motor bonnet. From the beruffled edge of this some golden strands of hair had escaped, and waved above two laughing blue eyes.
"Hello, people!" she hailed, as the porch party hastily adjourned and ran to welcome her, "how's that for a novice only recently out of the Mineola School?"
"Bess Marshall, you're a wonder!" cried Peggy, embracing her; "the Dart is the prettiest little machine I've seen for a long time."
"Isn't it a darling," agreed Bess warmly, "but, my! how I had to beg and pray dad before he would buy it for me. He said that no daughter of his should ever go up in an aeroplane, much less drive one. It wasn't till I got him down at Mineola and persuaded him to take a ride himself that he consented to buying me my dear little Dart."
She laid one daintily gloved hand on the steering wheel of the little monoplane and patted it affectionately.
"It's pretty enough, but it wouldn't fly very far," commented Roy teasingly, "sort of aerial taxicab, I'd call it."
"Is that so, Mr. Roy Prescott? Well, I'd like you to know that the Dart could fly just as far and as fast as the Red Dragon or the Golden Butterfly."
"Well, if you wanted to take a trip to North Carolina with us you'd have an opportunity to test that idea out," laughed Peggy.
"A trip to North Carolina? What do you mean? Are you dreaming?"
"No, not even day-dreaming."
Just then Miss Prescott, her gentle face wreathed in smiles, appeared at the door.
"Children! children!" she exclaimed, "what is all this? Adjourn your discussion for a while and come in and have tea."
While the happy group of young fliers are entering the pretty, old-fashioned house with its clustering roses and green-shuttered casements, let us relate a little more about the young personages to whose enthusiastic talk the reader has just listened.
Roy and Peggy Prescott were orphans living in the care of their aunt, Miss Prescott, the location of whose home on Long Island has already been described. At school Roy had imbibed the aerial fever, and after many vicissitudes had built a fine monoplane, the Golden Butterfly, with which he had won a big money prize, besides encountering a series of extraordinary aerial adventures. In these Peggy participated, and on more than one occasion was the means of materially aiding her brother out of difficulties. All this part of their experiences was related in the first volume of this series, "The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship."
In the second volume, "The Girl Aviators on Golden Wings," a combination of strange circumstances took our friends out to the Great Alkali of the Nevada desert. Here intrigues concerning a hidden gold mine provided much excitement and peril, and the girls proved that, after all, a fellow's sisters can be splendid companions in fun and hardship. An exciting race with an express train, and the adventure of the "Human Coyote," provided stirring times in this story, which also related the queer antics of Professor Wandering William, an odd character indeed. Space does not permit to relate their previous adventures in more detail, but in "The Girl Aviators' Sky Cruise" still other interesting and unusual experiences are described,—experiences that tested both themselves and their machines in endurance flights.
Of Roy and Peggy's devoted friends, Jess and Jimsy Bancroft, it is enough to say that both were children of Mr. Bancroft, a wealthy banker, who had a palatial summer home near to the Prescotts' less pretentious dwelling. Since we last met Jess and Jimsy their father had allowed them to purchase an aeroplane known as the White Flier. It was in this craft that Jimsy and Roy had flown over for mail when they made their entrance at the beginning of this chapter. Of the letter they found awaiting them we already know.
Jolly, good-natured Bess Marshall had taken up aviation as a lark. She was a typical specimen of an American girl. Light-hearted, wholesome and devoted to all sorts of sports, tennis, swimming, golf, motoring and finally aviation had, in turn, claimed her attention.
And now, having introduced our heroes and heroines of the sky to those who have not already met them, we will proceed to see how Miss Prescott receives the startling plans that her young charges are about to lay before her.
OFF ON THE FLIGHT.
"But, my dear children, do you realize what such a trip means?"
The gentle-voiced Miss Prescott leaned back in her easy-chair and gazed at Peggy and Roy with an approach to consternation.
"It means fun, adventure, and—oh, everything!" cried Peggy, clapping her hands.
"You can't have the heart to refuse us," sighed Jess.
"If it were only the boys it might be different, but two young ladies—" "Three," corrected Bess.
"Three, then. For three young ladies, supposedly of sound mind, to go flying across country like, like—" "Butterflies," struck in Jimsy.
"Wait a minute," cried Jess, "there'd have to be four ladies—" "Of course; a chaperon," breathed Peggy, with a mischievous glance.
Miss Prescott dropped her knitting.
"Peggy Prescott, you mean me?"
"Of course; who else could go?"
"My dear child, do you actually contemplate taking me flying through the air at my time of life?"
"Why not? It isn't as if you'd never been up," urged Peggy.
"You said you liked it, too," struck in Jess.
"Um—well, I may have said so," admitted Miss Prescott, visibly weakening from the stand she had taken, and she went on: "I would like to see James again."
"And here is your opportunity ready to hand, as the advertisements say," declared Bess, her blue eyes shining.
"But how could I go?"
The question was an outward and visible sign of capitulation on Miss Prescott's part.
"Why, I was thinking we could use that big biplane I was building for Mr. Bell's use out in Nevada," spoke up Roy; "it will seat three, and is as steady as a church, thanks to that balancing device Jimsy and I figured out."
"I'd fly my little Dart," declared Bess.
"And you and I would take the Golden Butterfly," cried Peggy, crossing to Jessie and placing her arm round the dark-haired girl's neck.
"Jimsy can fly the Red Dragon, and that leaves Roy and auntie for the biplane," she went on, bubbling over with enthusiasm as her plans matured and took form.
"Goodness gracious, an aerial circus!" cried Miss Prescott. "We would attract crowds, and that wouldn't be pleasant."
"I was planning to make it a sort of picnic," declared Peggy, who appeared to have an answer for every objection that could be interposed to her project.
"What, camp out every night? Well, you are a wonder," exclaimed Jimsy, "if there's one thing I love it's camping out."
"How long would it take us to get to Marysville?" asked Bess.
"I'll get the atlas," cried Peggy, "but if we have good weather not more than three or four days."
"I hardly think it would take as long as that," declared Roy, as five eager heads were bent over the atlas.
"But camping out!" exclaimed Miss Prescott, "think of colds and rheumatism, not to mention snakes and robbers."
"Tell you what," cried Jimsy suddenly, "what's the matter with Miss Prescott going along in an automobile? We can map out the route, arrange our stops and meet every evening at some small town where we won't attract too much of a crowd."
"Jimsy, I always said you were a genius," cried Peggy.
"Behold the last objection swept away," struck in Bess.
"Surely you can't refuse now?" urged Jess.
"Please say yes," came from them all.
"But—but who would drive the car?" asked Miss Prescott, in the voice of one who is thinking up a feeble last objection.
"Why, Jake Rickets, of course," declared Roy, referring to the man who helped the boys in the machine shop in which the aeroplanes for the desert mines were manufactured.
After this Miss Prescott could make but a poor stand against the united urgings of five impetuous, enthusiastic young people. The air was filled with plans of all sorts. Jimsy was for going at once, but it was finally decided to meet again and set a definite date for a start. In the meantime there were parents' consents to be obtained, plans laid for the route to be followed, and various things purchased for the aerial trip.
All this occupied some time, and it was not till a week later that the last difficulty in connection with the motor flight had been straightened out and the three aeroplanes stood ready, in Roy's hangar, for a tour that was to prove eventful in more ways than one.
It was just after dawn on the day of the start that Roy and Jimsy for the last time went over every nut and bolt on the machines and declared everything in perfect readiness for the trip. Breakfast was a mere pretence at a meal; excitement got the better of appetites that morning.
Beside the winged machines sputtering and coughing as if impatient at the delay, was a large and comfortable red touring car. At the driver's wheel of this vehicle was seated a small, "under-done"-looking man, in a chauffeur's uniform of black leather. This was Jake Rickets.
"Well, Jake, we're all ready for a start," announced Roy, at last.
The small man, whose hair was fair, not to say pale, glanced at the glowing boy with an expression of deep melancholy.
"Yes, if something don't happen," he declared, in tones of deep pessimism.
"Jake's never happy unless he's foreboding some disaster," explained Roy to Bess, who happened to be standing by drawing on her gloves.
"It don't never do to be too sure," murmured the melancholy Jake, "'cos why? Well, you can't most generally always tell."
"Everything ready?" cried Peggy at last, as Miss Prescott got into the car.
"As ready as it ever will be," merrily called back Bess, who was already seated in the little green Dart.
The chorus of engine pantings and explosions was swelled by the roar of Roy's big biplane and the rattling exhaust of Jimsy's fierce-looking Red Dragon.
The Golden Butterfly, which was equipped with a silencing device, ran smoothly and silently as a sewing machine. Peggy sat at the wheel, while Jess reclined on the padded seat placed tandemwise behind her. It made a wonderful picture, the big white biplane with its boy driver, the scarlet and silver machine of Jimsy Bancroft and the delicate green and gold color schemes of the other two flying machines.
"The first stop will be Palenville," announced Roy, "the biplane will be the pathfinder."
Despite the earliness of the hour and the efforts that had been made to keep the motor flight a secret, the information of the novel experiment had, in some way, leaked out. Quite a small crowd gave a loud cheer as Roy cried:
"We're off!" cried Peggy, athrill with excitement.
Propellers flashed in the sunlight and the next instant the biplane, after a short run, soared aloft toward a sky of cloudless, clean-swept blue. In rapid succession the Dart, Golden Butterfly and Red Dragon followed.
"Come on," cried Bess to Jimsy, waving her hand challengingly.
"Ladies first, even off the earth," came back from Jimsy gallantly, as he skillfully "banked" his machine in an upward spiral.
Then upward and outward soared the gayly colored sky racers, like a flock of wonderful birds. It was the greatest sight that the crowd left behind and below had ever witnessed, although one or two shook their heads and prophesied dire results from young ladies tampering with them blamed "sky buggies."
But not a thought of this entered the heads of the aerial adventurers. With sparkling eyes, and bounding pulses they flew steadily southward, from time to time glancing below at the touring car. Even though they were flying slowly it was plain that the big auto had hard work to keep up with them. The unique motor flight was on, and was about to develop experiences of which none of them at the moment dreamed.
LITTLE WREN AND THE GIPSIES.
They flew on, keeping the motor car beneath them in constant sight till about noon. Then, from the tonneau of the machine, came the waving of a red square of silk. This had been agreed upon as a signal to halt for a brief lunch.
Shouting joyously, the young adventurers of the air began circling their machines about, dropping closer earthward with every sweep. Beneath them was a green meadow, bordered on one side by a country road and on the other by a small brook of clear water and a patch of dark woods. It was an ideal place to halt for a roadside lunch, and as one after the other the machines dropped to earth Miss Prescott was warmly congratulated on her choice of a halting place.
The car was left in the road, and the melancholy Jake Rickets set to work getting wood for a fire, for it was not to be thought of that Miss Prescott could go without her cup of tea. In the meantime the girls spread a cloth and set out their fare. There were dainty chicken sandwiches with crisp lettuce leaves lurking between the thin white "wrappers," cold meat and half a dozen other little picnic delicacies, which all the girls, despite their aerial craze, had not forgotten how to make.
The boys set up a shout as, returning from attending to the aeroplanes, they beheld the inviting table.
"This beats camping out by ourselves," declared Roy, "girls, we're glad we brought you."
"Thank you for the compliment," laughed Jess. "I suppose you mean that you are glad we brought all this."
She waved her hand at the "spread" dramatically.
"Both," rejoined Jimsy, throwing himself on the grass. By this time Jake's kettle was bubbling merrily, and soon the refreshing aroma of Miss Prescott's own particular kind of tea was in the air. The boys preferred to try the water from the brook, despite Jake's dire hints at typhoid and other germs holding a convention in it. It was sweet and cool, and the girls voted it as good as ice-cream soda.
"At any rate as we can't get any we might as well pretend it is," declared Bess.
So the meal passed merrily. After it had been concluded, amid gay chatter and fun, Peggy proposed an excursion to the woods for wild flowers which grew in great profusion on the opposite side of the stream. Crossing it by a plank bridge, the young people plunged into the cool woods, dark and green, and carpeted with flowering shrubs and vines.
For some time they gathered the blossoms, and were just about to return to the aeroplanes and resume their journey when Peggy uttered a sudden sharp exclamation:
"Hark! What's that?" she cried.
They all listened. Again came the sound that had arrested her attention; a sharp cry, as if some one was in pain or fright.
Then came definite words:
"Don't! Please; don't hit me again!"
"It's a child!" exclaimed Jimsy.
"A girl!" cried Peggy, "some one is ill-treating her."
"We'll soon find out!" cried Roy hotly. It infuriated the boy to think that a child was being subjected to ill-treatment, and the nature of the cries left no doubt that such was the case.
"Stand back here, girls, while we see what's up!" struck in Jimsy.
"Indeed we'll do no such thing!" rejoined the plucky Bess, bridling indignantly.
"At any rate let us go in advance," advised Roy; "we don't know just what we may run up against."
This appeared reasonable even to Bess, and with the boys slightly in advance the little group pressed rapidly forward. After traveling about two hundred yards they found themselves in a small clearing where a most unusual sight presented itself; a sight that brought a quick flash of indignation to the face of every one of them.
Cowering under the blows of a tall, swarthy woman was a small girl, so fragile as to appear almost elfin. The woman wore the garb of a gipsy, and the presence of some squalid tents and tethered horses showed our young friends at once that it was a gipsy encampment upon which they had happened.
The woman was so intent on belaboring the shrieking child that at first she did not see the newcomers. It was not till Roy stepped up to her, in fact, that she became aware of their presence.
"What are you doing to this child?" demanded Roy indignantly.
"That's none of your business," was the retort, as the woman for an instant released her hold on the child.
Instantly the little creature darted to the sheltering arms of Peggy, sobbing piteously.
"Oh! Save me from her, she will kill me," the child cried, in a broken voice.
"There! there!" soothed Peggy tenderly, "don't cry. We won't let her harm you any more."
But like a fury the woman flew at the girls. Before she could lay hands on them, however, Roy and Jimsy had seized her arms and held them. At this the crone set up a hideous shriek and, as if it had been a signal, two swarthy men, with dark skins and big earrings in their ears, came running from behind the tents.
"What's the trouble?" they cried, as they ran up, regarding the boys malevolently.
"It's the Wren; they're trying to steal the Wren!" shrilled out the woman.
At this the men rushed at the boys, one of them waving a thick cudgel he carried.
"Let go of that woman," they shouted furiously.
Another instant and the boys would have been in a bad position, for both the gipsies were powerful fellows, and appeared determined to commit violence. But Roy, releasing his hold of the struggling gipsy woman, put up his fists in such a scientific manner that, for an instant, the attack paused. This gave Jimsy time to rush to his side. The instant she was released the woman darted to the side of the men.
"Beat them! Kill them!" she cried frantically.
The men resumed their rush, and the next moment the boys found themselves fighting to escape a furious assault. Neither of the lads was a weakling, and good habits and constant athletic exercise had placed them in the pink of condition.
But the two gipsies were no mean antagonists. Then, too, the one with the cudgel wielded it skillfully. Time and again Jimsy avoided a heavy blow which, if successful, must have injured him seriously. The girls, screaming, rushed off, carrying "the Wren," as the woman called her, with them. They dashed at top speed back to the spot where the aeroplanes had been left, and summoned Jake.
"I knew something would happen," declared that worthy, as he picked up a monkey wrench, the only weapon at hand, and started off for the woods.
The girls followed him, Miss Prescott not having been vouchsafed anything but a most hurried explanation of what was going on. Just as Jake appeared on the scene Jimsy had received a terrific blow on the arm from one of the gipsy's cudgels. The boy's arm dropped as if paralyzed. With a howl of triumph the ruffian who had dealt him the blow rushed in on the injured lad. In another instant it would have looked bad indeed for Jimsy, but Roy, landing a hard blow against his assailant, hastened to his chum's rescue.
"You look after that fellow. I'll take care of this one," cried Jake, rushing into the melee, whirling his monkey wrench in a formidable manner.
The girls, huddled in a group, gazed on in frank alarm.
"Oh, they'll be killed!" shrilled Jess.
"Roy! Roy! Be careful!" cried Peggy.
"Oh, I wish we could get a policeman," cried Bess, clasping her hands nervously. But as it happened a policeman, even if such a personage had been within a dozen miles, was not needed. A clever blow from Roy laid the cudgel wielder low, and the other man, not liking the look of Jake's monkey wrench, capitulated by taking to his heels. The woman cowered back among the tents.
"Come on, let's be going," cried Roy, as he saw that the battle was over.
"Ouch! my wrist!" exclaimed Jimsy, wringing his left hand; "I believe that fellow has broken it."
"Let's have a look," said Roy, as the two boys made their way to the huddled group of girls.
"Nothing but a nasty whack," he pronounced, after an examination. "Well, girls, was it an exciting battle?"
"Oh, it was terrible," cried Jess; "we thought you'd be badly beaten."
"But as it is we appear to be future 'white hopes,' not forgetting Jake," smiled Roy, who was still panting from his exertions.
"You were awfully brave, I think," cried Bess admiringly, giving the three "heroes" a warm glance.
"Well, there wasn't anything to do but fight, unless we'd run away," laughed Roy, "and now what about the cause of all the trouble?"
He glanced at the little girl clinging to Peggy's hand. The child was pitifully emaciated, with drawn features and large, dark eyes that gazed about her bewilderedly. Her clothing was a red gingham dress that fitted her like a sack. She was shoeless and stockingless. Her brown hair, unkempt and ragged, hung in elf locks about her sad little face. Certainly, as regarded size and general appearance, her name, "The Wren," fitted her admirably.
"I don't know what to do about her," admitted Peggy; "suppose we ask Aunt Sally? I don't want to let the gipsies have her again, and yet I don't see how we can take her."
At the words the little creature burst into a frantic outbreak.
"Don't let those people have me back; don't," she begged; "they'll kill me if you do."
She clung passionately to Peggy's dress. Tears came to the girl's eyes at the pitiful manifestation of fear.
"There! there, dear," soothed Peggy, stroking the child's head, "you shan't go back if we can help it. Come with us for the time being, anyway."
"But we have no legal right to take her," objected Roy.
"Don't say another word," snapped the usually gentle Peggy, whose indignation had been fully aroused, "come on. Let's get back to where we left Aunt Sally, then we can decide what to do."
"Incidentally, we'll do well to get out of this vicinity before any more of those fellows come up. There must be several more somewhere close at hand," exclaimed Jimsy.
"Yes; and I'll bet the others, the two who ran off, have gone to call them," put in Roy; "that woman has disappeared, too."
No time was lost in getting back to the aeroplanes, "The Wren," as the gipsies called her, keeping tight hold of Peggy's hand. The boys walked behind and, with Jake, formed a sort of rear guard to ward off any possible attack. But either the other members of the band were far off, or else they did not care to attempt an assault, for the party reached the aeroplanes without further incident or molestation.
Miss Prescott's consternation may be imagined as she listened to the tale they had to tell. From time to time during its relation she glanced pityingly at the Wren.
"Poor child!" she exclaimed, gazing at the wizened little creature's bruised arms. They were black and blue from rough handling, and bore painful testimony to the life she had lived among the gipsies.
"What is your name, dear?" she asked, motioning to the child as Peggy finished her story.
"The Wren, that's what they always called me," was the response, in a thin little wisp of a voice.
"Have you no other name?" asked Miss Prescott kindly.
The child shook her head.
"I don't know. Perhaps I did once. I wasn't always with the tribe. I remember a home and my mother, but that was all so long ago that it isn't clear."
"Then she's not a gipsy," declared Peggy emphatically.
"I'll bet they kidnapped her some place," exclaimed Roy.
"That doesn't solve the problem of what to do with her," struck in Jess.
"We can't send her back to those people," declared Bess, with some warmth.
"On the other hand, how are we to look after her?" said Jimsy.
"It's a problem that will have to solve itself," said Miss Prescott, after a few moments of deep thinking.
"How is that?" asked Peggy.
"Because she goes with us no matter what happens. It may not be legal, but humanity comes above the law sometimes," declared Miss Prescott, with emphasis.
"Hurrah for Aunt Sally!" cried the boys, "she's as militant as a newly blossomed suffragette. Cheer up, Wren, you're all right now."
"Then I'm to stay with you?" questioned the child.
"Of course," came from Aunt Sally.
The child buried her head on the kind-hearted lady's lap and burst into a passion of weeping that fairly shook her frail frame.
It was at this juncture that Jake set up a shout and pointed toward the woods. From them a group of men had burst, armed with sticks and stones. They came rushing straight at the little group, uttering ferocious shouts.
"We're in for it now," exclaimed Roy; "girls, you had better get in the machine and drive a safe distance. Those fellows mean mischief."
APPROACH OF THE STORM.
It was apparent enough that mean mischief they did. Their dark eyes gleamed fiercely out of their swarthy faces. One or two wore a vivid red or blue handkerchief knotted about sinewy necks, this means of adornment only adding to their generally sinister look.
"I knew we wouldn't get far without running into trouble," moaned Jake dejectedly.
Roy turned on him sharply, almost angrily.
"You get the ladies in that machine and drive off down the road a bit," he said; "I'll attend to this thing. Jimsy, come here."
Jake hesitated a moment and then strode off to the auto.
"Can't we stay and help?" asked Bess.
"No; we can help Roy best by doing what he; wants us to. He's got some plan in his head," rejoined Peggy firmly, "come along, Wren; Jess, help me with her, she's terrified to death."
This was no exaggeration. At sight of the gipsy band, the child so recently taken from their clutches shrank and cowered against her young protectress.
"Don't let them take me—don't!" she kept wailing.
"Never mind; don't be scared, Wren," Peggy comforted, "they won't get you."
A flash of determined fire came into Peggy's eyes as she spoke.
"Peg! You're magnificent," exclaimed Jess, as, headed by Miss Prescott, they hastened toward the car which Jake had already cranked.
The gipsies had paused for an instant. Evidently the sight of the aeroplanes bewildered and amazed them. Expecting to come on a camp of young folks they had suddenly encountered a group of machines which, to them, must have savored of the supernatural. But as the auto drove off they were due for an even greater surprise.
Following a swift whisper from Roy both boys had jumped into the Red Dragon. In an instant came the sharp barking of the engine. The flying machine dashed forward almost simultaneously. Straight at the angry nomads Roy headed it. It was as if a war chariot of old was charging into a group of defiant barbarians.
For a few moments the gipsies stood their ground. But as the machine rose from the ground, skimmed it, as it were, Roy thrust on full power. The machine darted over the spot where the gipsies had stood but an instant before; but they had gone. Scattering with wild cries of fear, they could be seen running for their lives toward the wood.
"I don't think they'll trouble us again in a hurry," declared Roy grimly, as he brought the Red Dragon round in a circle and headed back for the rest.
From the machine came a cheer, Miss Prescott's voice ringing out as loudly as any.
"The idea just came to me in a second," explained Roy modestly, in answer to the ladies' congratulations and praise, "it worked, though, didn't it?"
"Like a charm," they all agreed.
"Hadn't we better be getting on?" asked Jimsy, a minute later.
"Yes; there's no knowing if those fellows won't try a flank attack, although I think they've had a big enough scare thrown into them to last them quite a while with economy," laughed Roy.
"Who is going to take care of Wren?" asked Bess.
"She'll ride right in the car with me," declared Miss Prescott positively, "you don't think I'm going to risk her in one of those things of yours, do you?"
They all laughed. As a matter of fact, there was not one of the party that was not more at home in the air than on a road. Then, too, Roy's balancing device had about removed the last peril of air traveling. It was agreed to stop at Meadville, which the map showed was about thirty miles to the southeast, and purchase a dress and other necessities for their new ward. As to what was to be done with her after that nobody had any very definite plans. And so the journey was resumed, with congratulations flying over the way in which they came out of what, for a time, looked like a really serious scrape.
The weather had held fair till a short time after the start was made from the scene of the encounter with the gipsies. It was Peggy who first observed a change in the sky.
From the southwest billowy masses of slate-colored clouds came rolling on, obscuring the sunlit landscape beneath with an effect of lights turned down on a stage. Turning to Jess, who occupied the seat behind her, she remarked:
"We're going to have some bad kind of a storm, girlie."
"Wonder how far we are from Meadville?" she asked.
"Quite a way yet. I'm afraid that we can't make it before the storm breaks."
"Look, there's Roy coming back, and Jimsy, too. I guess they want to talk about it."
This turned out to be the case. As Roy came swinging by he held a small megaphone to his mouth with one hand, while the other gripped the steering wheel tightly.
"We're in for a storm, girls, and a hummer, too, from the look of it."
"Better drop down," counseled Jimsy.
Jess nodded, and, as at this moment Bess, who had seen the boy's maneuver, came by, the news was communicated to her.
The next thing to do was to look about for a suitable place to land. The country over which they were passing was heavily wooded, and seemingly sparsely populated. Beneath them wound a road, along which, but at some distance behind, the touring car could be seen coming in a cloud of yellow dust.
The wind began to grow puffy, and it required all the skill of the young aviators to keep their flock of motor-driven birds on even wings. Before long, just as the distant, but fast approaching, cloud curtain began to be ripped and slashed by vivid scimitars of lightning, Roy espied, beneath them, a field, at one end of which stood a prosperous-looking farmhouse, surrounded by buildings and hay stacks.
It was an ideal spot in which to land, and as the road was near by they would have no difficulty in attracting the attention of Miss Prescott when she went by. In graceful volplanes the aeroplanes lit in the field like an alighting flight of carrier pigeons. But hardly had they touched the ground when from the farmhouse a man came running in his shirtsleeves, his lower limbs being garbed in overalls and knee-boots. On his chin was a goatee, and as he drew closer they saw that his face was thin and hatchet shaped and anything but agreeable.
"You git out of thar! You git out of thar!" he kept shouting as he came along, stumbling over the stubble, for the field had been newly reaped.
"Why, what's the matter? We're not hurting anything," objected Roy; "surely you don't mind our occupying the field for an hour or so till the storm blows over?"
"I daon't, hey? Wa'al, I do, by heck. I own all the way daown and all the way up frum this farm, and thet's ther law."
"If we didn't have these ladies with us we'd be only too glad to leave your field," rejoined Jimsy, "but you can see for yourself a nasty storm is coming up."
"What bizness hes gals riding round in them sky-buggies," stormed the farmer; "ef any darter uv mine did it I'd lock her up on bread an' water, by Jim Hill."
"I don't doubt it in the least," smiled Peggy sweetly.
"Humph!" grunted the cantankerous old agriculturist, not quite sure if he was being made fun of or if his resolution was being admired; "all I got to say is thet ef you want to stay here you gotter pay."
"That can be arranged," spoke Jimsy, with quiet sarcasm.
"An' pay wa'al, too," resumed the farmer tenaciously.
"How much do you think the lease of your field for an hour or so is worth?" asked Roy.
The farmer considered an instant, and then, with an avaricious look in his pin-point blue eyes, he looked up.
"'Bout ten dollars," he said, at length.
"We don't want to buy it, we just want to rent it for a very short time," struck in Bess, with her most innocent expression.
"Wa'al, it's ten or git off!" snapped the farmer.
"I'll pay you a fair price for it," spoke up Roy, "and not a cent more."
"Then I'll drive you off with a shot-gun, by chowder."
"Oh, no, you won't."
"Won't, hey? What'll stop me?"
"Ther law? Thet's a good one."
"I think it is, a very good one," struck in Jimsy, who now saw what Roy was driving at.
"Humph! wa'al, if yer a'goin' te talk law I'll jes' tell yer quick thet this is my land and thet you're all a-trespassing."
"You are not very well up on aerial law, it seems," replied Roy, in an absolutely unruffled tone.
"Don't know nuthin' 'bout this air-ile law," grumbled the fellow, but somewhat impressed by Roy's calm, deliberate exterior.
"Well, then, for your information I'll tell you that under the laws of the country recently enacted aviators are entitled to land in any safe landing place in times of emergency. If they do any damage they must pay for it. If not the owner of the land is not entitled to anything for the temporary use of his place."
"Five dollars or nothing," spoke Jimsy, "and if you try to put us off you'll get into serious trouble."
"Wa'al, yer a-robbin' me," muttered the man, much impressed by Roy's oratory, "gimme ther five."
It was quickly forthcoming. The old fellow took it without a word and shuffled off. As he did so there was a vivid flash of lightning and the growl of a big crash of thunder. While it was still resounding the auto came puffing up. Jake had put up the storm top and made it as snug and comfortable as a house.
"Come on, boys and girls," urged Roy, "let's get the engines covered up and then beat it for the car. The rain will hit in in torrents in a few minutes."
Indeed they were still making fast the waterproof covers constructed to throw over the motors in just such emergencies when the big drops began to fall.
There was a helter-skelter race for the car. In they all crowded, and none too soon. The air was almost as dark as at dusk, and there was a heavy sulphurous feeling in the atmosphere. But within the curtains of the car all was fun and merriment. The case of the old farmer was discussed at length, and Jimsy convulsed them all by his clever imitation of the way the bargain was driven.
He was in the midst of his description when a fearfully vivid flash lit up the interior of the car as brightly as day. As it did so The Wren uttered a sharp cry.
"What is it, dear? Afraid of the lightning?" asked Miss Prescott, while a thunder volley boomed and reverberated.
"No, no," shivered the child, drawing closer to her, "but when I see a flash like that I sometimes remember."
"Remember what?" asked Miss Prescott tenderly.
"Oh, I don't know," wailed the child, "people and places. They come for a moment and then disappear again as quickly as they came."
PEGGY'S THOUGHTFULNESS SAVES THE FARM.
Flash after flash, roar after roar, the lightning and thunder crashed and blazed as the full fury of the storm struck in. Miss Prescott, who was in deadly fear of lightning, covered her eyes with a thick veil and sank back in the cushions of the tonneau.
But the rest of the party regarded the furious storm with interest. The rain was coming down in sheets, but not one drop penetrated the water-proof top of the big touring car.
"It's grand, isn't it?" asked Peggy, after a particularly brilliant flash.
"Um—ah, I don't just know," rejoined Jess, "it's rather too grand if anything. I——" Bang!
There was a sharp report, like that of a large cannon. The air was filled with an eye-blistering blaze of blue fire. Stunned for an instant, and half blinded, not one of the young folks in the touring car uttered a word.
The storm, too, appeared to be "holding its breath" after that terrific bombardment.
"That struck close by," declared Roy, the first to recover his speech.
"Oh! oh!" moaned Miss Prescott, "then the next will hit us!"
"Don't be a goose, Aunt Sally," comforted Peggy; "don't you know that lightning never strikes twice in the same place?"
Miss Prescott made no answer. In fact she had no opportunity to do so.
From close at hand shouts were coming. Loud, frightened shouts.
"Gracious! something's on fire at that farmhouse!" cried Peggy.
"That's what!" came in excited tones from Roy as he peered out through the rain.
"Look at them running about," chimed in Jimsy.
"It's from that haystack! See the smoke roll up!" cried Bess.
"The lightning must have struck it. Say, we'd better go and help," exclaimed Roy anxiously.
"I don't see that the old man who was so mean to us deserves any help," murmured Bess, rather angrily.
"Why, Bess, for shame!" reproved Peggy. "Go on, boys, the rain's letting up, maybe you can help them."
"All right, sis. Come on, Jimsy!"
The boys dived out of the car and set off running at top speed for the scene of the blaze, which was in a haystack back of the main barn of the farmhouse. Several farm hands, under the direction of the disagreeable old man, whose name was Zenas Hutchings, were running about with buckets of water, which were about as effective as trying to sweep the sea back with a broom, so far as gaining any headway against the flames was concerned.
Had the rain continued it might have been possible for the farm hands to quell the blaze with the assistance of the elements; but the storm had ceased almost as suddenly as it began, and only a few scattering drops were now falling. Off to the southwest the sky was blue once more.
The farmer turned despairingly to the boys as they came running up.
"'Clare ter goodness if it ain't them kids ag'in," he exclaimed; "wa'al, you ain't brought me nuthin' but bad luck so far as I kin see. Hyars a hundred dollars' worth of hay goin' up in smoke an'—"
A farm hand came bustling up. His face was pale under the grime of soot that overlaid it.
"Ef we don't git ther fire under control purty soon," he cried, "ther whole place 'ull go."
"What's thet, Jed?" snapped old Hutchings anxiously.
"I said that ther sparks is beginning ter fly. If ther fire gits much hotter it'll set suthin' else ablaze."
"By heck! That's so!" cried old Hutchings, in an alarmed voice.
He gazed about him perplexedly.
"Isn't there any fire apparatus near here?" asked Roy.
"Yep; at Topman's Corners. But that's five miles off."
"Have you telephoned them?" asked Jimsy, who had noticed that the Hutchings farm, like most up-to-date ones, was equipped with a telephone; at least there were wires running into the place which appeared to be of that nature.
"Ain't no use telephoning" was the disconsolate rejoinder.
"Wire's busted. Reckon ther storm put it out of business. I guess it's all up with me now. I hoped ter pay off ther part of ther mortgage with ther hay and grain in thet barn yonder, an' now——" He broke off in a half sob. Cantankerous as the old man had shown himself to be, and grasping withal, the boys could not help but feel sorry for the stricken old fellow. He looked pitifully bowed and old and wretched in the midst of his distracted farm hands, who were running about and shouting and not doing much of anything else.
"Wa'al," he said, at length, pulling himself together with a visible effort, "thar's no chance of gitting ther fire ingines, so it'll hev ter go, I guess."
"Yes there is a chance of getting the engines, and a good one, too."
They all turned at the sound of a girlish voice, and there stood Peggy with Jess by her side. The two girls had stolen up unnoticed in the excitement.
"Bravo, Peg!" exclaimed Roy heartily, glancing approvingly at his sister, "what's your idea?"
"Fly over and get help."
"Fly over! Wa'al, I'll be switched!" gasped old Hutchings.
"I don't see why not," struck in Jimsy, "it's five miles, you say. Well, we ought to make that in ten minutes or so, or even quicker."
"How fast can the engines get back?" asked Roy practically.
"Wa'al, ther roads be good and Bob Shields hez a right smart team," was the rejoinder. "They ought ter make it in half an hour."
"Good. Then if you can hold the flames in check for a short time longer we can save your place yet."
Beckoning to Jimsy, the boy darted off for the Red Dragon. This machine he selected because, with the exception of the Dart, it was the fastest and lightest of the aeroplanes they had with them. Farmer Hutchings had hardly closed his mouth from its gaping expression of surprise when a whirr of the motor announced that the Red Dragon was off. Its lithe body shot into the air with tremendous impetus.
"Ther Corners is off thar to ther westward," shouted up the farmer, "you can't miss it. It's got a red brick church with a high tower on it right in the middle of a clump of elms."
Speeding above fields and woodland the red messenger of pending disaster raced through the air. Five minutes after taking flight Jimsy espied a high red tower. Eight and one half minutes after the Dragon had shot aloft it fluttered to earth on the village street of Topman's Corners, amid an amazed group of citizens who had seen it approaching.
It was the first aeroplane ever seen in the remote Pennsylvanian hamlet, and it created commensurate excitement. But the boys had no time to answer the scores of questions, foolish and otherwise, that were volleyed at them from all sides.
"There's a fire!" exclaimed Jimsy breathlessly, "a fire at Hutchings's farm. How soon can you get the engines there?"
A stalwart-looking young fellow stepped up.
"I'm chief of the department," he said, "we're the 'Valiants.' I'll be there in twenty-five minutes if I have to kill the horses. It's downhill most of the way, anyhow. Jim, you run off and ring ther bell."
A second later the fire bell was loudly clanging and several of the crowd melted away to don their helmets and coats. In less time than the boys would have thought it possible a good-looking engine came rumbling out of the fire house half a block down the street. Behind it came a hook and ladder truck.
Fine horses were attached to each, and from the way they leaped off the boys saw that the "Chief" meant to make good his promise.
"Race you to ther fire!" shouted the latter functionary, as, in a storm of cheers, his apparatus swept out of sight down the elm-bordered street.
"You're on," laughed Roy, whisking aloft while the Topman's Cornerites were still wondering within themselves if they were waking or dreaming.
THE GIRL AVIATORS IN DEADLY PERIL.
The fire was out. A smoldering, blackened hillock was all that remained of the stack ignited by the lightning bolt; but the others and the main buildings of the farm had been saved.
Such work was a new task for aeroplanes—but there is no doubt that, had it not been for Peggy's suggestion, the Hutchings farm would have been burned to the ground. As it was, when the firemen, their horses in a lather, arrived at the scene, the farm hands, who had been fighting the flames, were almost exhausted.
Had they possessed the time, the young folks would have been glad to tell the curious firemen something about their aeroplanes. But it was well into the afternoon, and if they intended to keep up their itinerary it was necessary for them to be hurrying on. A short time after the blaze had been declared "out" the aeroplanes once more soared aloft, and the auto chugged off in the direction of Meadville.
The afternoon sun shone sparklingly on the trees and fields below, all freshened by the downpour of the early afternoon. The spirits of all rose as did their machines as they raced along. Before leaving the Hutchings farm the old man had been so moved to generosity by the novel manner in which his farm had been saved from destruction that he had offered to give back $2.50 of the $5 he had demanded for the rent of his field. Of course they had not taken it, but the evident anguish with which the offer was made afforded much amusement to the young aviators as they soared along.
In Peggy's machine the talk between herself and Jess was of the strange finding of The Wren, and of the child's curious ways. Both girls recalled her odd conduct during the storm and what she had said about the peculiar influence of lightning on her memory.
"Depend on it, Jess," declared Peggy, with conviction, "that child is no more a gipsy than you or I."
"Do you think she was stolen from somewhere?" asked Jess, readily guessing the drift of her friend's thoughts.
"I don't know, but I'm sure they had no legal right to her," was the reply.
"Oh, Peg! Suppose she should turn out to be a missing heiress!" Jess, who loved a romance, clasped her gauntleted hands.
"Missing heiresses are not so common as you might suppose," she said; "I never met any one who had encountered any, except in story books."
"Still, it would be great if we had really found a long missing child, or—or something like that," concluded Jess, rather lamely.
"I can't see how we would be benefiting the child or its parents, either, since we have no way of knowing who the latter are," rejoined the practical Peggy, which remark closed the discussion for the time being.
It was not more than half an hour later when Jess uttered a sharp cry of alarm. From the forward part of the aeroplane a wisp of smoke had suddenly curled upward. Like a blue serpent of vapor it dissolved in the air almost so quickly as to make Jess believe, for an instant, that she had been the victim of an hallucination.
But that it was no figment of the imagination was evidenced a few moments later by Peggy herself. Aroused by Jess's cry, she had made an inspection of the machine, with alarming results. What these were speedily became manifest.
"Jess! The machine is on fire!" she cried afrightedly.
As if in verification of her words there came a puff of flame and a strong reek of gasoline. It was just then that both girls recalled that the Golden Butterfly carried twenty-five gallons of gasoline, without counting the reserve supply.
Fire on an aeroplane is even more terrifying than a similar casualty on any other type of machine. Hardly had Peggy's words confirming the alarming news left her lips when there came a cry from Jess.
The girl had just glanced at the barograph. It showed that they were then 1,500 feet above the surface of the earth. The girl had hardly made this discovery before, from beneath the "bow" of the monoplane, came a wave of flame; driven from the steering wheel by the heat, Peggy drew back toward her companion. Her face was ashen white.
Left to itself the aeroplane "yawed" wildly, like a craft without a rudder. Then suddenly it dashed down toward the earth, smoke and flames leaping from its front part.
Both girls uttered a cry of terror as the aircraft fell like a stone hurled into space. Faster and faster it dashed earthward without a controlling hand to guide it. It was at this instant that Roy and Jimsy became aware of what had happened.
Instantly they swung their machine around in time to see the Golden Butterfly make her sickening downward swoop. Both lads uttered a cry of fear as they saw what appeared to mean certain death for the two Girl Aviators.
Roy's fingers scarcely grasped the wheel of his machine as he saw the downward drop. Jimsy was as badly affected. But almost before they could grasp a full realization of the accident the Golden Butterfly was almost on the ground. It was in a hilly bit of country, interspersed by small lakes or ponds.
A freak of the wind caught the blazing aeroplane as it fell and drove it right over one of these small bodies of water.
The Golden Butterfly appeared to hesitate for one instant and then plunged right into the water, flinging the two girls out. Both were expert swimmers, but the shock of the sudden descent, and the abrupt manner in which they had been flung into the water had badly unstrung their nerves.
Jess struck out valiantly, but the next instant uttered a cry:
"Peg! Peg! I'm sinking!"
Peggy pluckily struck out for her chum and succeeded in seizing her. Then with brisk strokes she made for the shore, luckily only a few yards distant. It was at this juncture that the boys' machines came to earth almost simultaneously. High above Bess's Dart hovered, and presently it, too, began to drop downward. Apparently the accident had not been seen from the auto, at any rate the car was not turned back toward the scene of the accident.
As the boys' aeroplanes struck the earth not far from the bank of the pond toward which Peggy was at that moment valiantly struggling, the two young aviators leaped out and set out at a run to the rescue. They reached the bank in the nick of time to pull out the two drenched, half-exhausted girls.
"At any rate the fall was a lucky one in a way!" gasped the optimistic Peggy, as soon as she caught her breath, "it put out the fire."
And so it had. Not only that, but the aeroplane, buoyed up by its broad wings, was still floating. On board the Red Dragon was a long bit of rope. Jimsy produced this and then swam out to the drifting Butterfly. The rope was made fast to it and the craft dragged ashore. But when they got it to the bank the problem arose as to how they were going to drag it up the steep acclivity.
Again and again they tried; Bess, who had by this time alighted, aiding them. But it was all to no purpose. Even their united strength failed to move the heavy apparatus.
"I've got an idea!" shouted Jimsy suddenly, during a pause in their laborious operations.
"Good! Don't let it get away, I beg of you!" implored Peggy.
"Oh, Peg! Don't tease, besides, you don't look a bit cute with your hair all wet and draggled, and as for your dress—goodness!"
This came from Jess, herself sadly "rumpled" and in addition wet through. Before Peggy could reply to her chum's half rallying remark Jimsy, unabashed, continued:
"We'll hitch this rope to the Red Dragon and then start her up for all she's worth."
"Jimsy, you're a genius!"
"A modern marvel!"
"A solid promontory of pure gray matter!"
In turn the remarks came from each of the party. But Jimsy, bothering not at all at the laughing encomiums, proceeded to secure the rope to the Red Dragon. This done, he started up the engine and clambered into his seat.
"All ashore that's going ashore!" he yelled, in mocking imitation of the stewards of an ocean liner.
There wasn't an instant's hesitation as he threw the load upon the engine. Then the rope tautened. It grew tight as a fiddle string.
"Goodness! It'll snap and the Dragon will be broken!" cried Jess, in alarm.
But no such thing happened. Instead, as the Dragon's powerful propeller blades "bit" into the air, the Golden Butterfly obediently mounted the steep bank of the pond. Five minutes later the pretty craft stood on dry land and the party of young aviators were eagerly making an investigation of the damage done.
The cause of the fire was soon found. A tiny leak in the tank had allowed some gasoline to drip into the bottom of the chassis, or passenger carrier. Collecting here, it was plain that a back fire from the carburetor had ignited it.
Neither of the girls could repress a shudder as they thought of what might have occurred had they been higher in the air and no convenient pond handy for them to drop into. In such a case the flames might have reached the gasoline tank before they could be extinguished and inevitably a fearful explosion would have followed.
"I think you are the two luckiest girls in the world," declared Roy solemnly, as he concluded his examination and announced his conclusions. Naturally they fully agreed with him.
A STOP FOR THE NIGHT.
It was some two hours later that Meadville received the greatest excitement of its career. People rushed out of stores and houses as the "flock" of aeroplanes came into sight.
As they gazed down the young aviators felt a momentary regret that they had chosen a town in which to pass the first night of their motor flight. It appeared that they would get into difficulties when they attempted to make a landing.
But almost simultaneously they spied a public park, which appeared to offer a favorable landing place. As soon as their intention of descending there became manifest, however, the crowd made a headlong rush for the spot.
It was too late to seek some other location to alight even had there been one available. Trusting to luck that the eager spectators would get out of their way the four aeroplanes began their spiraling descent.
Roy was first in his big biplane. As the ponderous, white machine ranged down close to the park the crowd became well-nigh uncontrollable. They swarmed beneath the big machine, despite Roy's shouts of warning.
Skillfully as the boy manipulated the aircraft he could not check its descent once begun.
"Out of the way! I don't want to hurt you!" he shouted, as he dashed down.
But the crowd, sheeplike in their stupidity, refused to budge. Into the midst of them Roy, perforce, was compelled to drive. Once the throng perceived his intention, however, they scattered wildly. That is, all sought positions of safety but one man, a stout, red-faced individual, who appeared dazed or befuddled.
He stood his ground, glaring foolishly at the sky ship. With a quick turn of his wrist Roy swept the big biplane aside, but a wing tip brushed the stout man, toppling him over in a twinkling. By the time Roy had stopped his machine the man was on his feet again, bellowing furiously. He was not hurt, but his face was contorted with anger.
He pushed his way through the crowd toward the young aviator.
"You young scoundrel!" he yelled, "I'll fix you for that! I'll—" "Look out, here come the rest of them!" shouted the crowd at this juncture.
Nobody needed any warning this time. They fled in all directions as one after the other the Golden Butterfly, the Red Dragon and the pretty, graceful Dart dropped to earth.
"Wa'al, look at them gals, will yer!" shouted a voice in the crowd.
"What's the country coming to?" demanded another man. "Gals gallivanting around like gol-dinged birds!"
But the majority of the crowd took the pretty girl aviators to its heart. Somebody set up a cheer.
It was still ringing out when, to the huge relief of the embarrassed girls, the auto came rolling up with Miss Prescott and "The Wren," as they still called the latter.
The girls, leaving the boys to look after the aeroplanes, ran to the side of the car and were speedily ensconced in its roomy tonneau. "We'll see you at the hotel!" cried Roy, as the car rolled off again, much to the disappointment of the crowd.
Two local constables came up at this juncture and helped the boys keep the crowd back from the machines. The throng seemed souvenir mad. Many of them insisted on writing their names with pencils on the wings of the air craft. Others would have gone further and actually stripped the aeroplanes of odd parts had they not been held back.
"This is the last time we'll land in a town of this size," declared Roy indignantly, as he helped the constables shove back an obstreperous individual who insisted on examining the motor of the Dart.
With the help of the constables a sheltering place for the machines was finally found. A livery stable that had gone out of business the week before was located across the street from the small park in which they had alighted. The owner of the property happened to be in the crowd and a bargain with him was soon struck. The aeroplanes were then trundled on their landing wheels into this shelter and the doors closed. Roy, for a small sum, engaged a tall, gangling-looking youth, whose name was Tam Tammas, to guard the doors and keep off the inquisitive. This done, thoroughly tired out, the boys sought the hotel. Like most towns of its size and importance Meadville only boasted one hostelry worthy of the name. This place, the Fountain House, as it was called, was a decent enough looking hotel and the young aviators were warmly welcomed. After supper, for in Meadville nobody "dined," Miss Prescott and the girls sauntered out with The Wren to obtain some clothing for the waif who had so strangely come into their possession. It was odd, but somehow they none of them even suggested giving up the queer little foundling to the authorities as had originally been their intention. Instead, although none of them actually voiced it, it appeared that tacitly they had decided to keep the child with them.
While they were gone on their errand of helpfulness Roy and Jimsy were seated on the porch of the hotel watching, with more or less languid interest, the inhabitants of the town passing back and forth. Many of them lingered in front of the hotel, for aviators were not common objects in that part of the country, and already the party had become local celebrities.
"I guess we'll go inside," said Roy, at length, "I'm getting sick of being looked at as if I was some sort of natural curiosity."
"Same here," rejoined Jimsy, "we'll go in and I'll play you a game of checkers."
"You're on," was the response.
But as the boys rose to go, or rather the instant before they left their seats, there came a heavy step behind Roy and a gruff voice snarled:
"What are you doing in that chair?"
"Sitting in it," responded Roy, in not too pleasant a voice. The tone in which he had been addressed had aroused a hot resentment in him toward the speaker.
Turning he saw the same red-faced man whom he had been unfortunate enough to knock down.
Instantly his manner changed. He felt genuinely sorry for the accident and hastened to explain that such was the case. But a glowering glance was the only response he received. "You done it a-purpose. Don't tell me," snarled the red-faced individual, "an' now you git right out uv that chair or—or I'll make you!"
Both boys stared at the man in amazement. His tone was coarse and bullying to a degree.
"We are not occupying these chairs to your inconvenience," declared Roy stoutly, "there are lots of others."
He indicated several rockers placed at intervals along the hotel porch, and all empty.
"That chair you're sitting in is mine," snapped the man, in response.
"Got a mortgage on it, eh?" smiled Jimsy amiably.
"I'll show you kids how much of a mortgage I've got on it," was the reply.
It was just then that a lad of about Roy's own age, but with a surly, hang-dog sort of look, emerged from the smoking-room of the hotel.
"What's up, father?" he demanded, addressing the red-faced man.
"Why, Dan, the kids have appropriated my chair."
"Oh, those flying kids. Well, they'll see that they ain't everything around here," responded the lad; "I reckon Jim Cassell has some say here, eh, dad?"
"I reckon so, son," grinned the red-faced man, in response to this elegant speech; "now, then, are you going to give up that chair or not?"
"I was just leaving it when you came out," rejoined Roy, who, by this time, was fairly boiling over. "Under the present conditions, however, I think I shall continue to occupy it."
"You will, eh?" snarled out Dan Cassell, "then I'll show you how to vacate it—so!"
With the words he laid hands on the back of the chair and jerked it from under the young aviator. Roy, caught entirely off his guard, was flung to the floor of the porch. He was up in a flash, but as he rose to his feet Dan Cassell, evidently excited by what he deemed a great triumph, aimed a savage blow at him.
Jimsy was rushing to his assistance but the red-faced man suddenly blocked his path.
"Hold off, son! hold off!" he warned, "unless you want to get the same dose."
ROY MAKES AN ENEMY.
In the meantime Roy had skillfully avoided Dan Cassell's blow, and was aggressively on the defensive. He was a lad who did not care for fighting, but notwithstanding was a trained boxer. Something of this seemed to dawn on Dan Cassell as the boy he sought to pummel dodged his attack with such cleverness.
For a moment Dan stood stock-still with doubled up fists and a scowl on his not unhandsome, though weak and vicious features. Then, with a bellow, he rushed upon Roy, who contented himself by sidestepping the furious onslaught.
This appeared to enrage Dan Cassell the more. Either he interpreted it as portraying cowardice, or else he deemed that he had his opponent at his mercy. At any rate, after an instant's pause he rushed at Roy with both fists. It was the young aviator's opportunity.
"Look out!" he warned.
The next instant the pugnacious Dan Cassell found himself upon his back, regarding a multitude of constellations.
At almost precisely the same time Jimsy's fist happened to collide with the point of the jaw of the fallen battler's father.
"Sorry; but I simply had to, you know," remarked the nonchalant Jimsy, as the red-faced man found himself occupying a position not dissimilar to that of his son.
Both boys were heartily sorry for what had happened, the more so for the reason that at the very instant that both crestfallen bullies were scrambling to their feet the hotel door opened and several of the guests came out to ascertain the cause of the trouble.
Among them was Jonas Hardcastle, the proprietor of the place.
"What's up? What's the trouble?" he demanded, in dismay, as he viewed the scene of the confusion.
"It's those brats of aviators, or whatever they call themselves," bellowed Cassell, who was purple with fury; "they attacked Dan and me and assaulted us brutally."
The landlord looked doubtingly at the man. Then he turned to Roy.
"What are the facts?" he asked.
Roy told him unhesitatingly the whole truth. When he had concluded Jonas Hardcastle spoke.
"You've been hanging around here too long, Jim Cassell," he said, in a voice that quivered with indignation; "now make yourself scarce, both you and your son. Don't annoy my guests any more."
Cassell, nursing a spot on his jaw which was rapidly growing a beautiful plum color, lurched off without a word. His son followed. It was not until he reached the street that he spoke. Then, in a voice that trembled from suppressed fury, he hissed out:
"All right for you kids. You think you've played a smart trick on Dan and me; but I'll fix you! Just watch!"
Without uttering another syllable he slouched off into the gathering darkness, followed by his son, who bestowed a parting scowl on Roy and Jimsy.
"I'm sorry that you had a row with them," remarked Jonas Hardcastle, as the pair vanished.
"How's that?" inquired Roy. "They forced it on us, and—" "I know. I know all about that," was the rejoinder, "but Cassell is quite by way of being a politician hereabouts, and he might try to make it uncomfortable for you."
"In what way?" demanded Jimsy.
"Oh, many ways. Those fellows have no scruples. To tell you the truth, boys, I guess you haven't heard the last of this."
With this he left them, a prey to no very comfortable thoughts.
"I'm half inclined to believe what he said," declared Jimsy.
"In just what way?"
"Why, about the harm this fellow Cassell can do us. In every community like this you'll find one local 'Pooh-bah' who runs things pretty much as he likes. They have satellites who will do just about as they're told."
"You mean—" "That we'd better keep a good lookout on the aeroplanes. From my judgment of Cassell I don't think he's got nerve enough to attack us directly, but he can wreak his vengeance on our machines if we don't watch pretty closely."
"I'm inclined to think you're right. But don't say a word of all this to the girls. It might upset them. You and I will decide on a plan of action later on. To tell you the truth, I'm not any too sure of our newly acquired watchman, Tam Tammas."
"Nor I. We'll wait till the rest get back and then take a stroll down to that livery stable. Seems funny, doesn't it, to stable aeroplanes in a livery stable?"
"Well, why not? Wasn't Pegasus, the first flying machine on record, a horse?"
"Humph; that's so," agreed Jimsy, whose supply of classical knowledge was none too plentiful.
It was not long after this that the girls returned. With them came The Wren in a neat dress and new shoes, an altogether different looking little personage from the waif of the woods whom they had rescued at noon.
"Why, Wren," cried Peggy, "you are positively pretty. In a month's time we won't know you."
"A month's time?" sighed the child; "am I going to stay with you as long as that?"
Miss Prescott caught the wan little figure in her arms.
"Yes, and many months after that," she cried.
Roy and Jimsy exchanged glances.
"Another member of the family," exclaimed Roy; "if we go at this rate we'll have acquired an entire set of new sisters by the time we reach the Big Smokies."
JIMSY FALLS ASLEEP.
"Anybody been around, Tam?"
Roy asked the question, as later on that evening he and Jimsy dropped around to the disused livery stable in accordance with their plan.
Tam shook his head.
"Nobody bane round," he rejoined, and then, after a moment's pause, "'cept Yim Cassell and his boy Dan."
"Jim Cassell and his son," echoed Roy, "the very people we don't want around here. What did they want?"
"They want know where you bane," rejoined the Norwegian youth.
"Yes; and what did you tell them?"
"I bane tell them I skall not know," responded Tam.
"They bane ask me if ay have key by door."
"Oh, they did, eh? What did you say?"
"I say I bane not have key."
"Then what did they do?"
"They bane go 'way."
"Didn't say anything else?"
"No, they must go."
"Said nothing about coming back?"
"All right, Tarn, you can go home now. Here's your money."
"You bane want me no more?"
"No; we'll watch here ourselves to-night. Good night."
"Good night," rejoined Tam, pocketing his money and shuffling off down the street.
He had hardly gone two blocks when from the shadow of an elm-shaded yard the figure of Dan Cassell slipped out and intercepted him.
"So you've been fired, eh?"
He shot the question at the simple-minded Norwegian lad with vicious emphasis.
"No, I no bane fired; they bane tell me no want me more."
"Well, isn't that being fired? Moreover, I can tell you that they've hired another fellow in your place."
The Norwegian youth's light blue eyes lit up with indignant fire. Like most of his race he was keenly sensitive once aroused, and while he was quite agreeable to being dropped from his temporary job, he hated to think of being supplanted in it. Crafty Dan Cassell was playing his cards well, for a purpose that will be seen ere long.
"So they bane fire me," ejaculated Tam.
"That's the size of it. I guess you feel pretty sore, Tam, don't you?"
"No, they bane pay me wale; but I no like being fired."
"I should think not. The idea of a man like you being dropped. What did they tell you when they let you go?"
"That they bane watch place themselves."
Dan Cassell smiled. His crafty methods had elicited something of real value after all.
"Did they say they were going to watch all night?" he asked.
"Yes," rejoined the Norwegian, "they ask about you, too."
"Humph! What did they want to know?"
"If you'd been round by stable and what I bane tale you."
"What did you say?"
"I tale them the truth. I say that you and your father bane by stable this evening."
Dan's face darkened.
"You had no business to tell them anything," he snarled. Then, with a sudden change of front: "See here, Tam, do you want to make some money?"
"Sure, I bane like make money."
"Then come into the house a minute. Dad and I want to talk to you."
So saying Dan took the Norwegian by the arm and led him in through a gate in a whitewashed picket fence. Beyond the fence was a fairly prosperous looking house, on the piazza of which lounged Jim Cassell smoking a cigar.
"Well, Tam," he said, "lost your job?"
The Norwegian replied in the affirmative.
"Well, never mind, I've got another for you," replied Jim Cassell, in what was for him an unwontedly amiable tone; "can you go to work at once?"
"Ay bane work any time skol be," spoke the Norwegian, and a puzzled expression flitted over his face as both Cassells broke into what was to him an inexplicable fit of laughter at his words.
In the meantime the boys had telephoned to the hotel that work on the aeroplanes would detain them till late. They did not wish to inform the girls that they were undertaking a night watch, as that would have led to all sorts of questions, and if their fears proved ungrounded they felt pretty sure of coming in for a lot of "joshing."
They agreed to divide the night into two parts, Jimsy watching till midnight and then awakening Roy who would take up the vigil till dawn. This arrangement having been made they secured a light lantern from an adjacent hardware store and, entering the deserted livery stable, prepared to carry out their plans. With the canvas covers of the aeroplanes Roy managed to fix up quite a comfortable bed on a pile of hay left in a sort of loft over the abandoned stable.
As for Jimsy, he made himself as comfortable as possible in the chassis of the Golden Butterfly, the seats of which were padded as luxuriously as those of a touring car. He had a book dealing with aeronautic subjects with him, and, drawing the lantern close to the aeroplane, he buried himself in the volume.
In the meantime Roy had rolled himself up in his canvas coverings and was sound asleep. For a long time Jimsy read on. At first frequent footsteps passed the door of the stable, but as it grew later these ceased. Folks went to bed early in Meadville. Long before midnight there was not a sound on the streets.
Jimsy read doggedly on. But he was painfully conscious of an almost irresistible desire to lie back and doze off, if only for a few seconds. The exciting events of the day had tired him out, nor was the book he was reading one calculated to keep his wits stirring. It was a technical work of abstruse character.
Jimsy's head began to nod. With a sharp effort he aroused himself only to catch himself dozing off once more.
"See here, Jim Bancroft, this won't do," he sharply admonished himself, "you're on duty, understand? On duty! Wake up and keep your eyes open."
But try as he would tired Nature finally asserted herself. Jimsy's head fell forward, his eyes closed for good and he snored in right good earnest. He was sound asleep.
It was about half an hour after he dozed off that a window in the rear of the stable framed a face. A crafty, eager face it was, as the yellow light of the lantern revealed its outlines. Dan Cassell, for it was he, gazed sharply about him. He swiftly took in the posture of the sleeping boy and a smile spread over his countenance.
Dropping from the ladder he had raised outside, he joined two figures waiting for him in the shadow of the livery barn.
"It's too easy," he chuckled, "only one kid there and he's sound asleep. Got everything ready?"
"Dey all bane ready, Maister Cassell," rejoined the slow, drawling voice of the Norwegian Tam.
"Now don't botch the job," warned the elder Cassell, who was the third member of the party; "remember it means a lot of trouble for us if we're caught."
"No danger of that, dad. Come on, I'll go first and you and Tam follow."
"Is the window open?"
"No, but it slides back. It's an easy drop to the floor from it."
"All right, go ahead. I'll be glad when the job's over. I'm almost inclined to drop out of it."
"And let those kids get away with what they did? Not much, dad. We'll give them a lesson they won't forget in a hurry. Come on."
He began climbing the ladder. Behind him came his worthy parent, and Tam formed the last member of the now silent procession. The Norwegian carried a bulky package of some kind, the contents of which it would have been impossible to guess save that it gave out a metallic sound as Tam moved with it.
Dan Cassell reached the window, slid it noiselessly back in its grooves and then, crawling through, dropped lightly to the floor within. He was followed by his father and Tam.
But Jimsy slept on. Slept heavily and dreamlessly, while deadly peril crept upon him.
The movements of the invaders of the stable, which now housed the "winged steeds" of the young aviators, were mysterious in the extreme. The Norwegian carried a tin can containing some sort of liquid which he was ordered to pour about the floor in the neighborhood of the aeroplanes. This done, Dan Cassell collected several scraps of litter and made quite a pile of it.
"All ready now, I guess," he said, with what was meant as an attempt at a grin. But his lips were pale, and his forced jollity was a dismal failure. As for his father, he made no attempt to conceal his agitation.
"Dan, they may be burned alive," he faltered; "better call it all off."
"Not when we've gone as far as this with it," was the rejoinder; "give me a match."
"It's all right, dad. They'll wake in time."
"But if not?"
"Then they'll have to take their medicine."
With fingers that trembled as if their owner was palsied, Jim Cassell handed his son some matches. The latter took one, bent low over the pile he had collected and struck the lucifer.
A yellow sputter of flame followed, and the next instant he was holding it to the pile of litter which had been previously soaked by the contents of the Norwegian's can.
But before he could accomplish his purpose and set fire to the pile of odds and ends saturated to double inflammability by the kerosene the Norwegian had carried, there came a startling interruption.
There was a knock at the door and a girlish voice cried:
"Roy! Roy, let me in!"
"Furies!" exclaimed Dan Cassell under his breath. "It's one of those girls."
"Come on. Let's get away quick!" exclaimed his father, trembling from nervous agitation.
"Not before I set a match to this," exclaimed Dan Cassell viciously.
He touched the match to the pile and the flames leaped up.
"Now for our getaway," he cried, and the three fire-bugs ran for the window by which they had made their entrance.
In the meantime a perfect fusillade of blows had been showered on the door outside. Jimsy awoke just as the last of the three midnight intruders vanished through the window. His first instinct was a hot flush of shame over the feeling that he had betrayed his trust.
Then to his ears came the voice that had alarmed the Cassells and their tool.
"Roy! Jimsy! Are you there?"
"It's Peggy!" gasped Jimsy.
"And Jess," he added the next instant, and simultaneously there came the pounding of a stick on the door.
"This is an officer of the law. Open up at once."
Jimsy, dazed by his sleep, had not till then noticed the blazing pile of litter. Now he did so with a quick cry of horror. The stuff was blazing up fiercely. Already there was an acrid reek in the air.
"The place is on fire!" he shouted.
The next moment there came a violent assault on the door and the crazy lock parted from its rotten fastenings as a man attired in a police officer's uniform burst into the place. Behind him came two wide-eyed frightened girls. The leaping flames lit up their faces vividly.
"It's fire sure enough!" cried the police officer.
"Great Scot, what's happening?"
It was Roy who shouted the question. He was peering down from the loft where he had been sleeping. The uproar had awakened him and in a jiffy he was among them.
"Quick! the fire extinguishers!" he cried, and Jimsy, readily understanding, secured the flame-killing apparatus from the biplane and from the Red Dragon.
He and Roy, aided by the officer, fought the flames vigorously, and, luckily, were able to subdue them, though if it had not been for the as yet unexplained arrival of Peggy and Jess it is doubtful if they could have coped with the blaze. When it was all out Peggy rushed into explanations.
"Something warned me that you were in danger," she exclaimed, "and I woke up Jess and we found this officer and came down here."
"What gift of second sight have you?" demanded Roy, gazing at the smoking, blackened pile that had threatened the destruction of the inflammable premises.
"I don't know. Womanly intuition, perhaps. Oh, Roy!"
The girl burst into a half-hysterical sob and threw her arms about her brother's neck.
"You arrived in the nick of time, sis," he said, gently disengaging himself from her clasp, "a little more and—"
He did not finish the sentence. There was no need for him to.
"Begorry, the ould place 'ud hev bin a pile of cinders in an hour's time," declared the policeman.
It was Jess's turn to give an hysterical little sob.
Roy turned to Jimsy.
"Did you see anything? The place is reeking with kerosene. It was a plot to destroy the aeroplanes and perhaps ourselves."
Jimsy stammered. The words seemed to choke up in his throat. How was he to confess that he had failed in his trust—had slept while danger threatened?
Roy waited, plainly surprised. It was not like Jimsy to hesitate and stammer in this way.
At last it came out with a rush.
"I—I—you'll never forgive me, any of you—I was asleep."
"Asleep! Oh, Jimsy!"
There was a world of reproach in Jess's voice. But Peggy interrupted her.
"How was it, Jimsy?" she asked softly.
"I don't know. I give you my word I don't know."
Jimsy's voice held a world of self-reproach.
"I was reading," he went on, hurrying over the words as if anxious to get his confession over with, "that book of Grotz's on monoplane navigation. I felt sleepy and—and the next thing I knew I woke up to hear you pounding on the door and shouting."
"A good thing the young ladies found me," put in the policeman; "shure I was after laughing at them at first, but then, begorry, I decided to come along with them. It's glad I am that I did."
"Who can have done this?" asked Roy, who had not a word of reproach for his chum, although Jimsy had failed dismally in a position of trust.
"Begorry, they might have burned you alive!" cried the policeman indignantly.
"No question about that," rejoined Roy; "it was a diabolical plot. Who could have attempted such a thing?"
"Wait till I call up and have detectives sent down here," said Officer McCarthy. "I'm after thinking this is too deep for us to solve."
Nevertheless, each of that little group but the policeman had his or her own idea on the matter.
A MEAN REVENGE!
The result of the telephone call was a request to call at the Police Headquarters of the little town and give a detailed account of the affair.
"Gracious! I should think that the only way to get a clue would be to send a detective down here," exclaimed Peggy, on receipt of this information.