THE LOST CITY
By Joseph E. Badger, Jr.
CHAPTER I. NATURE IN TRAVAIL II. PROFESSOR FEATHERWIT TAKING NOTES III. RIDING THE TORNADO IV. THE PROFESSOR'S LITTLE EXPERIMENT V. THE PROFESSOR'S UNKNOWN LAND VI. A BRACE OF UNWELCOME VISITORS VII. THE PROFESSOR'S GREAT ANTICIPATIONS VIII. A DUEL TO THE DEATH IX. GRAPPLING A QUEER FISH X. RESCUED AND RESCUERS XI. ANOTHER SURPRISE FOR THE PROFESSOR XII. THE STORY OF A BROKEN LIFE XIII. THE LOST CITY OF THE AZTECS XIV. A MARVELLOUS VISION XV. ASTOUNDING, YET TRUE XVI. CAN IT BE TRUE? XVII. AN ENIGMA FOR THE BROTHERS XVIII. SOMETHING LIKE A WHITE ELEPHANT XIX. THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN GOD XX. THE PROFESSOR AND THE AZTEC XXI. DISCUSSING WAYS AND MEANS XXII. A DARING UNDERTAKING XXIII. A FLIGHT UNDERGROUND XXIV. THE SUN CHILDREN'S PERIL XXV. WALDO GOES FISHING XXVI. DOWN AMONG THE DEAD XXVII. PENETRATING GRIM SECRETS XXVIII. BROUGHT BEFORE THE GODS XXIX. BENEATH THE SACRIFICIAL STONE XXX. AGAINST OVERWHELMING ODDS XXXI. DEFENDING THE SUN CHILDREN XXXII. ADIEU TO THE LOST CITY
THE LOST CITY.
CHAPTER I. NATURE IN TRAVAIL.
"I say, professor?"
"Very well, Waldo; proceed."
"Wonder if this isn't a portion of the glorious climate, broken loose from its native California, and drifting up this way on a lark?"
"If so, said lark must be roasted to a turn," declared the third (and last) member of that little party, drawing a curved forefinger across his forehead, then flirting aside sundry drops of moisture. "I can't recall such another muggy afternoon, and if we were only back in what the scientists term the cyclone belt—"
"We would be all at sea," quickly interposed the professor, the fingers of one hand vigorously stirring his gray pompadour, while the other was lifted in a deprecatory manner. "At sea, literally as well as metaphorically, my dear Bruno; for, correctly speaking, the ocean alone can give birth to the cyclone."
"Why can't you remember anything, boy?" sternly cut in the roguish-eyed youngster, with admonitory forefinger, coming to the front. "How many times have I told you never to say blue when you mean green? Why don't you say Kansas zephyr? Or windy-auger? Or twister? Or whirly-gust on a corkscrew wiggle-waggle? Or—well, almost any other old thing that you can't think of at the right time? W-h-e-w! Who mentioned sitting on a snowdrift, and sucking at an icicle? Hot? Well, now, if this isn't a genuine old cyclone breeder, then I wouldn't ask a cent!"
Waldo Gillespie let his feet slip from beneath him, sitting down with greater force than grace, back supported against a gnarled juniper, loosening the clothes at his neck while using his other hand to ply his crumpled hat as a fan.
Bruno laughed outright at this characteristic anticlimax, while Professor Featherwit was obliged to smile, even while compelled to correct.
"Tornado, please, nephew; not cyclone."
"Well, uncle Phaeton, have it your own way. Under either name, I fancy the thing-a-ma-jig would kick up a high old bobbery with a man's political economy should it chance to go bu'st right there! And, besides, when I was a weenty little fellow I was taught never to call a man a fool or a liar—"
"Waldo!" sharply warned his brother, turning again.
"So long as I knew myself to be in the wrong," coolly finished the youngster, face grave, but eyes twinkling, as they turned towards his mistaken mentor. "What is it, my dear Bruno?"
"There is one thing neither cyclone nor tornado could ever deprive you of, Kid, and that is—"
"My beauty, wit, and good sense,—thanks, awfully! Nor you, my dear Bruno, although my inbred politeness forbids my explaining just why."
There was a queer-sounding chuckle as Professor Featherwit turned away, busying himself about that rude-built shed and shanty which sheltered the pride of his brain and the pet of his heart, while Bruno smiled indulgently as he took a few steps away from those stunted trees in order to gain a fairer view of the stormy heavens.
Far away towards the northeast, rising above the distant hill, now showed an ugly-looking cloud-bank which almost certainly portended a storm of no ordinary dimensions.
Had it first appeared in the opposite quarter of the horizon, Bruno would have felt a stronger interest in the clouds, knowing as he did that the miscalled "cyclone" almost invariably finds birth in the southwest. Then, too, nearly all the other symptoms were noticeable,—the close, "muggy" atmosphere; the deathlike stillness; the lack of oxygen in the air, causing one to breathe more rapidly, yet with far less satisfying results than usual.
Even as Bruno gazed, those heavy cloud-banks changed, both in shape and in colour, taking on a peculiar greenish lustre which only too accurately forebodes hail of no ordinary force.
His cry to this effect brought the professor forth from the shed-like shanty, while Waldo roused up sufficiently to speak:
"To say nothing of yonder formation way out over the salty drink, my worthy friends, who intimated that a cyclone was born at sea?"
Professor Featherwit frowned a bit as his keen little rat-like eyes turned towards that quarter of the heavens; but the frown was not for Waldo, nor for his slightly irreverent speech.
Where but a few minutes before there had been only a few light clouds in sight, was now a heavy bank of remarkable shape, its crest a straight line as though marked by an enormous ruler, while the lower edge was broken into sharp points and irregular sections, the whole seeming to float upon a low sea of grayish copper.
"Well, well, that looks ugly, decidedly ugly, I must confess," the wiry little professor spoke, after that keen scrutiny.
"Really, now?" drawled Waldo, who was nothing if not contrary on the surface. "Barring a certain little topsy-turvyness which is something out of the ordinary, I'd call that a charming bit of—Great guns and little cannon-balls!"
For just then there came a shrieking blast of wind from out the northeast, bringing upon its wings a brief shower of hail, intermingled with great drops of rain which pelted all things with scarcely less force than did those frozen particles.
"Hurrah!" shrilly screamed Waldo, as he dashed out into the storm, fairly revelling in the sudden change. "Who says this isn't 'way up in G?' Who says—out of the way, Bruno! Shut that trap-door in your face, so another fellow may get at least a share of the good things coming straight down from—ow—wow!"
Through the now driving rain came flashing larger particles, and one of more than ordinary size rebounded from that curly pate, sending its owner hurriedly to shelter beneath the scrubby trees, one hand ruefully rubbing the injured part.
Faster fell the drops, both of rain and of ice, clattering against the shanty and its adjoining shed with an uproar audible even above the sullenly rolling peals of heavy thunder.
The rain descended in perfect sheets for a few minutes, while the hailstones fell thicker and faster, growing in size as the storm raged, already beginning to lend those red sands a pearly tinge with their dancing particles. Now and then an aerial monster would fall, to draw a wondering cry from the brothers, and on more than one occasion Waldo risked a cracked crown by dashing forth from shelter to snatch up a remarkable specimen.
"Talk about your California fruit! what's the matter with good old Washington Territory?" he cried, tightly clenching one fist and holding a hailstone alongside by way of comparison. "Look at that, will you? Isn't it a beauty? See the different shaded rings of white and clear ice. See—brother, it is as large as my fist!"
But for once Professor Phaeton Featherwit was fairly deaf to the claims of this, in some respects his favourite nephew, having scuttled back beneath the shed, where he was busily stowing away sundry articles of importance into a queerly shaped machine which those rough planks fairly shielded from the driving storm.
Having performed this duty to his own satisfaction, the professor came back to where the brothers were standing, viewing with them such of the storm as could be itemised. That was but little, thanks to the driving rain, which cut one's vision short at but a few rods, while the deafening peals of thunder prevented any connected conversation during those first few minutes.
"Good thing we've got a shelter!" cried Waldo, involuntarily shrinking as the plank roof was hammered by several mammoth stones of ice. "One of those chunks of ice would crack a fellow's skull just as easy!"
Yet the next instant he was out in the driving storm, eagerly snatching at a brace of those frozen marvels, heedless of his own risk or of the warning shouts sent after him by those cooler-brained comrades.
Thunder crashed in wildest unison with almost blinding sheets of lightning, the rain and hail falling thicker and heavier than ever for a few moments; but then, as suddenly as it had come, the storm passed on, leaving but a few scattered drops to fetch up the rear.
"Isn't that pretty nearly what people call a cloudburst, uncle Phaeton?" asked Bruno, curiously watching that receding mass of what from their present standpoint looked like vapour.
"Those wholly ignorant of meteorological phenomena might so pronounce, perhaps, but never one who has given the matter either thought or study," promptly responded the professor, in no wise loth to give a free lecture, no matter how brief it might be, perforce. "It is merely nature seeking to restore a disturbed equilibrium; a current of colder air, in search of a temporary vacuum, caused by—"
"But isn't that just what produces cy—tornadoes, though?" interrupted Waldo, with scant politeness.
"Precisely, my dear boy," blandly agreed their mentor, rubbing his hands briskly, while peering through rain-dampened glasses, after that departing storm. "And I have scarcely a doubt but that a tornado of no ordinary magnitude will be the final outcome of this remarkable display. For, as the record will amply prove, the most destructive windstorms are invariably heralded by a fall of hail, heavy in proportion to the—"
"Then I'd rather be excused, thank you, sir!" again interrupted the younger of the brothers, shrugging his shoulders as he stepped forth from shelter to win a fairer view of the space stretching away towards the south and the west. "I always laughed at tales of hailstones large as hen's eggs, but now I know better. If I was a hen, and had to match such a pattern as these, I'd petition the legislature to change my name to that of ostrich,—I just would, now!"
Bruno proved to be a little more amenable to the law of politeness, and to him Professor Featherwit confined his sapient remarks for the time being, giving no slight amount of valuable information anent these strange phenomena of nature in travail.
He spoke of the different varieties of land-storms, showing how a tornado varied from a hurricane or a gale, then again brought to the front the vital difference between a cyclone, as such, and the miscalled "twister," which has wrought such dire destruction throughout a large portion of our own land during more recent years.
While that little lecture would make interesting reading for those who take an interest in such matters, it need scarcely be reproduced in this connection, more particularly as, just when the professor was getting fairly warmed up to his work, an interruption came in the shape of a sharp, eager shout from the lips of Waldo Gillespie.
"Look—look yonder! What a funny looking cloud that is!"
A small clump of trees growing upon a rising bit of ground interfered with the view of his brother and uncle, for Waldo was pointing almost due southeast; yet his excitement was so pronounced that both the professor and Bruno hastened in that direction, stopping short as they caught a fair sight of the object indicated.
A mighty mass of wildly disturbed clouds, black and green and white and yellow all blending together and constantly shifting positions, out of which was suddenly formed a still more ominous shape.
A mass of lurid vapour shot downwards, taking on the general semblance of a balloon, as it swayed madly back and forth, an elongating trunk or tongue reaching still nearer the earth, with fierce gyrations, as though seeking to fasten upon some support.
Not one of that trio had ever before gazed upon just such another creation, yet one and all recognised the truth,—this was a veritable tornado, just such as they had read in awed wonder about, time and time again.
Neither one of the brothers Gillespie were cravens, in any sense of the word, but now their cheeks grew paler, and they seemed to shrink from yonder airy monster, even while watching it grow into shape and awful power.
Professor Featherwit was no less absorbed in this wondrous spectacle, but his was the interest of a scientist, and his pulse beat as ordinary, his brain remaining as clear and calm as ever.
"I hardly believe we have anything to fear from this tornado, my lads," he said, taking note of their uneasiness. "According to both rule and precedent, yonder tornado will pass to the east of our present position, and we will be as safe right here as though we were a thousand miles away."
"But,—do they always move towards the northeast, uncle Phaeton?"
"As a rule, yes; but there are exceptions, of course. And unless this should prove to be one of those rare ex—er—"
"Look!" cried Waldo, with swift gesticulation. "It's coming this way, or I never—ISN'T it coming this way?"
"Unless this should prove to be one of those rare exceptions, my dear boy, I can promise you that—Upon my soul!" with an abrupt change of both tone and manner, "I really believe it IS coming this way!"
"It is—it is coming! Get a move on, or we'll never know—hunt a hole and pull it in after you!" fairly screamed Waldo, turning in flight.
CHAPTER II. PROFESSOR FEATHERWIT TAKING NOTES.
"To the house!" cried the professor, raising his voice to overcome yonder sullen roar, which was now beginning to come their way. "Trust all to the aeromotor, and 'twill be well with us!"
The wiry little man of science himself fell to work with an energy which told how serious he regarded the emergency, and, acting under his lead, the brothers manfully played their part.
Just as had been done many times before this day, a queer-looking machine was shoved out from the shed, gliding along the wooden ways prepared for that express purpose, while Professor Featherwit hurried aboard a few articles which past experience warned him might prove of service in the hours to come, then sharply cried to his nephews:
"Get aboard, lads! Time enough, yet none to spare in idle motions. See! The storm is drifting our way in deadly earnest!"
And so it seemed, in good sooth.
Now fairly at its dread work of destruction, tearing up the rain dampened dirt and playing with mighty boulders, tossing them here and there, as a giant of olden tales might play with jackstones, snapping off sturdy trees and whipping them to splinters even while hurling them as a farmer sows his grain.
Just the one brief look at that aerial monster, then both lads hung fast to the hand-rail of rope, while the professor put that cunning machinery in motion, causing the air-ship to rise from its ways with a sudden swooping movement, then soaring upward and onward, in a fair curve, as graceful and steady as a bird on wing.
All this took some little time, even while the trio were working as men only can when dear life is at stake; but the flying-machine was afloat and fairly off upon the most marvellous journey mortals ever accomplished, and that ere yonder death-balloon could cover half the distance between.
"Grand! Glorious! Magnificent!" fairly exploded the professor, when he could risk a more comprehensive look, right hand tightly gripping the polished lever through which he controlled that admirable mechanism. "I have longed for just such an opportunity, and now—the camera, Bruno! We must never neglect to improve such a marvellous chance for—get out the camera, lad!"
"Get out of the road, rather!" bluntly shouted Waldo, face unusually pale, as he stared at yonder awful force in action. "Of course I'm not scared, or anything like that, uncle Phaeton, but—I want to rack out o' this just about the quickest the law allows! Yes, I DO, now!"
"Wonderful! Marvellous! Incredible! That rara avis, an exception to all exceptions!" declared the professor, more deeply stirred than either of his nephews had ever seen him before. "A genuine tornado which has no eastern drift; which heads as directly as possible towards the northwest, and at the same time—incredible!"
Only ears of his own caught these sentences in their entirety, for now the storm was fairly bellowing in its might, formed of a variety of sounds which baffles all description, but which, in itself, was more than sufficient to chill the blood of even a brave man. Yet, almost as though magnetised by that frightful force, the professor was holding his air-ship steady, loitering there in its direct path, rather than fleeing from what surely would prove utter destruction to man and machine alike.
For a few moments Bruno withstood the temptation, but then leaned far enough to grasp both hand and tiller, forcing them in the requisite direction, causing the aeromotor to swing easily around and dart away almost at right angles to the track of the tornado.
That roar was now as of a thousand heavily laden trains rumbling over hollow bridges, and the professor could only nod his approval when thus aroused from the dangerous fascination. Another minute, and the air-ship was floating towards the rear of the balloon-shaped cloud itself, each second granting the passengers a varying view of the wonder.
True to the firm hand which set its machinery in motion, the flying-machine maintained that gentle curve until it swung around well to the rear of the cloud, where again Professor Featherwit broke out in ecstatic praises of their marvellous good fortune.
"'Tis worth a life's ransom, for never until now hath mortal being been blessed with such a magnificent opportunity for taking notes and drawing deductions which—"
The professor nimbly ducked his head to dodge a ragged splinter of freshly torn wood which came whistling past, cast far away from the tornado proper by those erratic winds. And at the same instant the machine itself recoiled, shivering and creaking in all its cunning joints under a gust of wind which seemed composed of both ice and fire.
"Oh, I say!" gasped Waldo, when he could rally from the sudden blow. "Turn the old thing the other way, uncle Phaeton, and let's go look for—well, almost anything's better than this old cyclone!"
"Tornado, lad," swiftly corrected the man of precision, leaning far forward, and gazing enthralled upon the vision which fairly thrilled his heart to its very centre. "Never again may we have such another opportunity for making—"
They were now directly in the rear of the storm, and as the air-ship headed across that track of destruction, it gave a drunken stagger, casting down its inmates, from whose parching lips burst cries of varying import.
"Air! I'm choking!" gasped Bruno, tearing open his shirt-collar with a spasmodic motion.
"Hold me fast!" echoed Waldo, clinging desperately to the life-line. "It's drawing me—into the—ah!"
Even the professor gave certain symptoms of alarm for that moment, but then the danger seemed past as the ship darted fairly across the storm-trail, hovering to the east of that aerial phantom.
There was no difficulty in filling their lungs now, and once more Professor Featherwit headed the flying-machine directly for the balloon-shaped cloud, modulating its pace so as to maintain their relative position fairly well.
"Take note how it progresses,—by fits and starts, as it were," observed Featherwit, now in his glory, eyes asparkle and muscles aquiver, hair bristling as though full of electricity, face glowing with almost painful interest, as those shifting scenes were for ever imprinted upon his brain.
"Sort of a hop, step, and jump, and that's a fact," agreed Waldo, now a bit more at his ease since that awful sense of suffocation was lacking. "I thought all cyclones—"
"Tornado, my DEAR boy!" expostulated the professor.
"I thought they all went in holy hurry, like they were sent for and had mighty little time in which to get there. But this one,—see how it stops to dance a jig and bore holes in the earth!"
"Another exception to the general rule, which is as you say," admitted the professor. "Different tornadoes have been timed as moving from twelve to seventy miles an hour, one passing a given point in half a score of seconds, at another time being registered as fully half an hour in clearing a single section.
"Take the destructive storm at Mount Carmel, Illinois, in June of '77. That made progress at the rate of thirty-four miles an hour, yet its force was so mighty that it tore away the spire, vane, and heavy gilded ball of the Methodist church, and kept it in air over a distance of fifteen miles.
"Still later was the Texas tornado, doing its awful work at the rate of more than sixty miles an hour; while that which swept through Frankfort, Kansas, on May 17, 1896, was fully a half-hour in crossing a half-mile stretch of bottom-land adjoining the Vermillion River, pausing in its dizzy waltz upon a single spot for long minutes at a time."
"Couldn't have been much left when it got through dancing, if that storm was anything like this one," declared Waldo, shivering a bit as he watched the awful destruction being wrought right before their fascinated eyes.
Trees were twisted off and doubled up like blades of dry grass. Mighty rocks were torn apart from the rugged hills, and huge boulders were tossed into air as though composed of paper. And over all ascended the horrid roar of ruin beyond description, while from that misshapen balloon-cloud, with its flattened top, the electric fluid shone and flashed, now in great sheets as of flame, then in vicious spurts and darts as though innumerable snakes of fire had been turned loose by the winds.
Still the aerial demon bored its almost sluggish course straight towards the northwest, in this, as in all else, seemingly bent on proving itself the exception to all exceptions as Professor Featherwit declared.
The savant himself was now in his glory, holding the tiller between arm and side, the better to manipulate his hand-camera, with which he was taking repeated snap-shots for future development and reference.
Truly, as he more than once declared, mortal man never had, nor mortal man ever would have, such a glorious opportunity for recording the varying phases of nature in travail as was now vouchsafed themselves.
"Just think of it, lads!" he cried, almost beside himself with enthusiasm. "This alone will be sufficient to carry our names ringing through all time down the corridors of undying fame! This alone would be more than enough to—Look pleasant, please!"
In spite of that awful vision so perilously close before them, and the natural uncertainty which attended such a reckless venture, Waldo could not repress a chuckle at that comical conclusion, so frequently used towards himself when their uncle was coaxing them to pose before his pet camera.
"Is it—surely this is not safe, uncle Phaeton?" ventured Bruno, as another retrograde gust of air smote their apparently frail conveyance with sudden force.
"Let's call it a day's work, and knock off," chimed in Waldo. "If the blamed thing should take a notion to balk, and rear back on its haunches, where'd we come out at?"
Professor Featherwit made an impatient gesture by way of answer. Speech just then would have been worse than useless, for that tremendous roaring, crashing, thundering of all sounds, seemed to fall back and envelop the air-ship as with a pall.
A shower of sand and fine debris poured over and around them, filling ears and mouths, and blinding eyes for the moment, forcing the brothers closer to the floor of the aerostat, and even compelling the eager professor to remit his taking of notes for future generations.
Then, thin and reed-like, yet serving to pierce that temporary obscurity and horrible jangle of outer sounds, came the voice of their relative:
"Fear not, my children! The Lord is our shield, and so long as he willeth, just so long shall we—Ha! didn't I tell ye so?"
For the blinding veil was torn away, and once again the trio of adventurers might watch yonder grandly awesome march of devastation.
"Heading direct for the Olympics!" declared Professor Featherwit, digging the sand out of his eyes and striving to clean his glasses without removing them, clinging to tiller and camera through all. "What a grand and glorious guide 'twould be for us!"
"If we could only hitch on—like a tin can to the tail of a dog!" suggested Waldo, with boyish sarcasm. "Not any of that in mine, thank you! I can wait. No such mighty rush. No,—SIR!"
There came no answer to his words, for just then that swooping air-demon turned to vivid fire, lightning playing back and forth, from side to side, in every conceivable direction, until in spite of the broad daylight its glory pained those watching eyes.
"Did you ever witness the like!" awesomely cried Bruno, gazing like one fascinated. "Who could or would ever believe all that, even if tongue were able to portray its wondrous beauty?"
"What a place that would be for popping corn!" contributed Waldo, practical or nothing, even under such peculiar circumstances. "If I had to play poppy, though, I'd want a precious long handle to the concern!"
More intensely interested than ever, Professor Featherwit plied his shutter, taking shot after shot at yonder aerial phenomena, feeling that future generations would surely rise up to call him blessed when the results of his experiments were once fairly spread before the world.
And hence it came to pass that still more thrilling experiences came unto these daring navigators of space, and that almost before one or the other of them could fairly realise that greater danger really menaced both their air-ship and their lives.
Another whirly-gust of sand and other debris assailed the flying-machine, and while sight was thus rendered almost useless for the time being, the aerostat began to sway and reel from side to side, shivering as though caught by an irresistible power, yet against which it battled as though instinct with life and brain-power.
Once again the adventurers found it difficult to breathe, while an unseen power seemed pressing them to that floor as though—Thank heaven!
Just as before, that cloud was swept away, and again air came to fill those painfully oppressed lungs. Once again the trio cleared their eyes and stared about, only to utter simultaneous cries of alarm.
For, brief though that period of blindness had been, 'twas amply sufficient to carry the aeromotor perilously near yonder storm-centre, and though Professor Featherwit gripped hard his tiller, trying all he knew to turn the air-ship for a safer quarter,-'twas all in vain!
"Haste,—make haste, uncle Phaeton!" hoarsely panted Bruno, leaning to aid the professor. "We will be sucked in and—hasten, for life!"
"I can't,—we're already—in the—suction!"
CHAPTER III. RIDING THE TORNADO.
Whether it was that the air-ship itself had increased its speed during those few moments of dense obscurity, or whether the madly whirling winds had taken a retrograde movement at that precise time, could only be a matter of conjecture; but the ominous fact remained.
The aerostat was fairly over the danger-line, and, despite all efforts being made to the contrary, was being drawn directly towards that howling, crashing, thundering mass of destructive energy.
Already the inmates felt themselves being sucked from the flying-machine, and instinctively tightened their grip upon hand-rail and floor, gasping and oppressed, breath failing, and ribs apparently being crushed in by that horrible pressure.
"Hold fast—for life!" pantingly screamed Professor Featherwit, as he strove in vain to check or change the course of his aeromotor, now for the first time beyond control of that master-hand.
A few seconds of soul-trying suspense, during which the flying-machine shivered from stem to stern, almost like a human creature in its death-agony, creaking and groaning, with shrill sounds coming from those expanded, curved wings, as the suction increased; then—
A merciful darkness fell over those sorely imperilled beings, and the vessel itself seemed about to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sand and dirt and mixed debris. Then came a dizzy, rocking lurch, followed by a shock which nearly cast uncle and nephews from their frantic holds, and the air-ship appeared to be whirled end for end, cast hither and yon, wrenched and twisted as though all must go to ruin together.
A blast as of superheated air smote upon them one moment, while in the next they were whirled through an icy atmosphere, then tossed dizzily to and fro, as their too-frail vehicle spun upward as though on a journey to the far-away stars.
A shrieking blast of wind served to briefly clear away the choking dust, affording the trio a fleeting glimpse of their immediate surroundings: hurtling sticks and stones, splintered tops of trees, shrubs with wildly lashing roots freshly torn from the bed of years, all madly spinning through a blinding, scorching, freezing mass of crazily battling winds, the different currents twining and weaving in and out, as so many hideous serpents at play.
A moment thus, then that horrid uproar grew still more deafening, and the air-ship was whirled high and higher, in a dizzy dance, those luckless creatures clinging fast to whatever their frenzied hands might clutch, feeling that this was the end of all.
Further sight was denied them. They were powerless to move a limb, save as jerked painfully by those shrieking currents. Breath was taken away, and an enormous weight bore down upon them, threatening to produce a fatal collapse through their ribs giving way.
Upward whirled the flying-machine, powerless now as those wretched beings within its cunning shape, smitten sharply here and there by some of those ascending missiles, yet without receiving material injury; until a last shivering lurch came, ending in a sudden fall.
A dizzying swoop downward, but not to death and destruction, for the aerostat alighted easily upon what appeared to be a sort of air-cushion, and, though unsteady for a brief space, then settled upon an even keel.
"Cling fast—for life!" huskily gasped the professor, unwittingly repeating the caution which had last crossed his lips, which he had ever since been striving to enunciate, faithful to his guardianship over these, his sole surviving relatives.
"I don't—where are we?"
Waldo lifted his head to peer with half-blind eyes about them, in which action he was imitated by both brother and uncle; but, for a brief space, they were none the wiser.
All around the aeromotor rose a wall of whirling winds, seemingly impenetrable, apparently within reach of an extended arm, changing colour with each fraction of a second, hideously beautiful, yet never twice the same in blend or mixture.
A hollow, strangely sounding roar was perceptible; one instant coming as from the far distance, then from nigh at hand, causing the air-ship to quiver and tremble, as a sentient being might in the presence of a torturing death.
"Look—upward!" panted Bruno, a few seconds later, his face as pale as that of a corpse, in spite of the dirt and blotches of sticky mud with which he had been peppered during that dizzy whirl.
Mechanically his companions in peril obeyed, catching breath sharply, as they saw a clear sky and yellow sunshine far above,—so awfully far they were, that it seemed like looking upward from the bottom of an enormously deep well.
And then the marvellous truth flashed upon the brain of Phaeton Featherwit, almost robbing him of all power of speech. Still he managed to jerkily ejaculate:
"We're inside,—riding the—tornado—itself!"
Then those whirling winds closed quickly above them, shutting out the sunlight, hiding the heavens from their view, enclosing that vehicle and its occupants, as they were borne away into unknown regions, within the very heart of the tornado itself!
Yet, incredible as it surely seems, no actual harm came to the trio or to their flying-machine as it swayed gently upon its airy cushion, although from every side came the horrid roar of destruction, while ever and anon they could glimpse a wrestling tree or torn mass of shrubbery whizzing upward and outward, to be flung far away beyond the vortex of electrical winds.
Once more came that awful sense of suffocation. That painted pall closed down upon them, robbing their lungs of air, one instant fairly crisping their hair with a touch of fire, only to send an icy chill to their veins a moment later.
In vain they struggled, fighting for breath, as a fish gasps when swung from its native element. While that horrid pressure endured, man, youth, and boy alike were powerless.
Again the pall lifted, folding back and blending with those madly circling currents, once again affording a glimpse of yonder far-away heavens, so marvellously clear, and bright, and peaceful in seeming!
Weakened by those terrible moments, Bruno and Waldo lay gasping, trembling, faint of heart and ill of body, yet filling their lungs with comparatively pure air,—pity there was so little of it to win!
Professor Featherwit still had thought and care for his nephews rather than himself alone, and pantingly spoke, as he dragged himself to the snug locker, where many important articles had been stowed away:
"Here—suck life—compressed air!"
With husky cries the brothers caught at the tubes offered, the method of working which had so often been explained by their relative.
Once more the tube became a chamber, and that horrid force threatened to flatten their bodies; but the worst had passed, for that precious cylinder now gave them air to inhale, and they were enabled to wait for the lifting of the cloud once more.
Thanks to this important agency, strength and energy both of body and of mind now came back to the air-voyagers, and after a little they could lift their heads to peer around them with growing wonder and curiosity.
There was little room left for doubting the wondrous truth, and yet belief was past their powers during those first few minutes.
All around them whirled and sped those maddened winds, curling and twisting, rising and falling, mixing in and out as though some unknown power might be weaving the web of destiny.
Now dull, now brilliant, never twice the same, but ever changing in colour as in shape, while stripes and zigzags of lightning played here and there with terrifying menace, those walls of wind held an awfully fascinating power for uncle and nephews.
From every side came deadened sounds which could bear but a single interpretation: the tornado was still in rapid motion, was still tearing and rending, crushing and battering, leaving dire destruction and ruin to mark its advance, and these were the sounds that recorded its ugly work.
In goodly measure revived by the compressed air, which was regulated in flow to suit his requirements by a device of his own, Professor Featherwit now looked around with something of his wonted animation, heedless of his own peril for the moment, so great was his interest in this marvellous happening.
So utterly incredible was it all that, during those first few minutes of rallying powers, he dared not express the belief which was shaping itself, gazing around in quest of still further confirmation.
He took note of the windy walls about their vessel, rising upward for many yards, irregular in shape and curvature here and there, but retaining the general semblance of a tube with flaring top. He peered over the edge of the basket, to draw back dizzily as he saw naught but yeasty, boiling, seething clouds below,—a veritable air-cushion which had served to save the pet of his brain from utter destruction at the time of falling within—
Yes, there was no longer room for doubt,—they were actually inside the distorted balloon, so dreaded by all residents of the tornado belt!
"What is it, uncle?" huskily asked Bruno, likewise rallying under that beneficial influence. "Where are we now?"
"Where I'm wishing mighty hard we wasn't, anyhow!" contributed Waldo, with something of his usual energy, although, judging from his face and eyes, the youngster had suffered more severely than either of his comrades in peril.
Professor Featherwit broke into a queerly sounding laugh, as he waved his free hand in exultation before speaking:
"Where no living being ever was before us, my lads,—riding the tornado like a—ugh!"
The air-ship gave an awkward lurch just then, and down went the little professor to thump his head heavily against one corner of the locker. Swaying drunkenly from side to side, then tossing up and down, turning in unison with those fiercely whirling clouds, the aeromotor seemed at the point of wreck and ruin.
Desperately the trio clung to the life-lines, clenching teeth upon the life-giving tubes as that terrible pressure increased so much that it seemed impossible for the human frame to longer resist.
Fortunately that ordeal did not long endure, and again relief came to those so sorely oppressed. A brief gasping, sighing, stretching as the aerostat resumed its level position, merely rocking easily within that partial vacuum, and then Waldo huskily suggested:
"Looks like the blame thing was sick at the stomach!"
No doubt this was meant for a feeble attempt at joking, but Professor Featherwit took it for earnest, and made quick reply:
"That is precisely the case, my dear lad, and I am greatly joyed to find that you are not so badly frightened but that you can assist me in taking notes of this wondrous happening. To think that we are the ones selected for—"
"I say, uncle Phaeton."
"Well, my lad?"
"If this thing is really sick at the stomach, when will it erupt? I'd give a dollar and a half to just get out o' this, science or no science, notes or no notes at all!"
"Patience, my dear boy," gravely spoke the little man of science, busily studying those eddying currents like one seeking a fairly safe method of extrication from peril. "It may come far sooner than you think, and with results more disastrous than feeble words can tell. We surely are a burden such as a tornado must be wholly unaccustomed to, and I really believe these alternations are spasmodic efforts of the cloud itself to vomit us forth; hence you were nearer right than you thought in making use of that expression."
Just then came a rush of icy air, and Bruno pantingly cried:
"I'm swelling up—like Aesop's—bullfrog!"
CHAPTER IV. THE PROFESSOR'S LITTLE EXPERIMENT.
Again those involuntary riders of the tornado were tossed violently to and fro in their seemingly frail ship, while the balloon itself appeared threatened with instant dissolution, those eddying currents growing broken and far less regular in action, while the fierce tumult grew in sound and volume a thousandfold.
All around the air-ship now showed ugly debris, limbs and boughs and even whole trunks of giant trees being whirled upward and outward, each moment menacing the vessel with total destruction, yet as frequently vanishing without infringing seriously upon their curious prison.
Sand and dirt and fragments of shattered rock whistled by in an apparently unending shower, only with reversed motion, flying upward in place of shooting downward to earth itself.
Speech was utterly impossible under the circumstances, and the fate-tossed voyagers could only cling fast to the hand-rail, and hold those precious air-tubes in readiness for the worst.
Never before had either of the trio heard such a deafening crash and uproar, and little wonder if they thought this surely must herald the crack of doom!
The tornado seemed to reel backward, as though repulsed by an immovable obstacle, and then, while the din was a bit less deafening, Professor Featherwit contrived to make himself heard, through screaming at the top of his voice:
"The mountain range, I fancy! It's a battle to the—"
That sentence was perforce left incomplete, since the storm-demon gave another mad plunge to renew the battle, bringing on a repetition of that drunken swaying so upsetting to both mind and body.
A few seconds thus, then the tornado conquered, or else rose higher in partial defeat, for their progress was resumed, and comparative quiet reigned again.
The higher clouds curved backward, affording a wider view of the heavens far above, and, as all eyes turned instinctively in that direction, Bruno involuntarily exclaimed:
"Still daylight! I thought—how long has this lasted?"
"It's the middle o' next week; no less!" positively affirmed his brother. "Don't tell me! We've been in here a solid month, by my watch!"
Instead of making reply such as might have been expected from one of his mathematical exactness, Professor Featherwit gave a cry of dismay, while hurriedly moving to and fro in their contracted quarters, for the time being forgetful of all other than this, his great loss.
"What is it, uncle Phaeton?" asked Bruno, rising to his knees in natural anxiety. "Surely nothing worse than has already happened to us?"
"Worse? What could be worse than losing for ever—the camera, boys; where is the camera, I ask you?"
Certainly not where the professor was looking, and even as he roared forth that query, his heart told him the sad truth; past doubting, the instrument upon whose aid he relied to place upon record these marvellous facts, so that all mankind might see and have full faith, was lost,—thrown from the aerostat, to meet with certain destruction, when the vessel first came within the tornado's terrible clutch.
"Gone,—lost,—and now who will believe that we ever—oh, this is enough to crush one's very soul!" mourned the professor, throwing up his hands, and sinking back to the floor of the flying-machine in a limp and disheartened heap for the time being.
Neither Bruno nor Waldo could fully appreciate that grief, since thoughts and care for self were still the ruling passion with both; but once more they were called upon to do battle with the swaying of the winds, and once again were they saved only through that life-giving cylinder of compressed air.
Presently, the heart-broken professor rallied, as was his nature, and, with a visible effort putting his great loss behind him, endeavoured to cheer up his comrades in peril.
"So far we have passed through all danger without receiving material injury,—to ourselves, I mean,—and surely it is not too much to hope for eventual escape?" he said, earnestly, pressing the hands of his nephews, by way of additional encouragement.
"Yes," hesitated Bruno, with an involuntary shiver, as he glanced around them upon those furiously boiling clouds, then cast an eye upward, towards yonder clear sky. "Yes, but—in what manner?"
"What'll we do when the cyclone goes bu'st?" cut in Waldo, with disagreeable bluntness. "It can't go on for ever, and when it splits up,—where will we be then?"
"I wish it lay within my power to give you full assurance on all points, my dear boys," the professor made reply. "I only wish I could ensure your perfect safety by giving my own poor remnant of life—"
"No, no, uncle Phaeton!" cried the brothers, in a single breath.
"How cheerfully, if I only might!" insisted the professor, his homely face wearing an expression of blended regret and unbounded affection. "But for me you would never have encountered these perils, nor ever—"
Again he was interrupted by the brothers, and forced to leave that regret unspoken to the end.
"Only for you, uncle Phaeton, what would have become of us when we were left without parents, home, fortune? Only for you, taking us in and treating us as though of your own flesh and blood—"
"As you are, my good lads! Let it pass, then, but I must say that I do wish—well, well, let it pass, then!"
A brief silence, which was spent in gripping hands and with eyes giving pledges of love and undying confidence; then Professor Featherwit spoke again, in an entirely different vein.
"If nothing else, we have exploded one fallacy which has never met with contradiction, so far as my poor knowledge goes."
"And that is—what, uncle Phaeton?"
"Observe, my lads," with a wave of his hand towards those whirling walls, and then making a downward motion. "You see that we are floating in a partial vacuum, yet where there is air sufficient to preserve life under difficulties. And by looking downward—careful that you don't fall overboard through dizziness, though!"
"Looks as though we were floating just above a bed of ugly wind!" declared Waldo, after taking a look below.
"Precisely; the aerostat rests upon an air-cushion amply solid enough to sustain far more than our combined weight. But what is the generally accepted view, my dear boys?"
"You tell, for we don't know how," frankly acknowledged Waldo.
"Thanks. Yet you are now far wiser than all of the scientists who have written and published whole libraries concerning these storm formations, but whose fallacies we are now fully prepared to explode, once for all, through knowledge won by personal investigation—ahem!"
Strange though it may appear, the professor forgot the mutual danger by which they were surrounded, and trotted off on his hobby-horse in blissful pride, paying no attention to the hideous uproar going on, only raising his voice higher to make it heard by his youthful auditors.
"The common belief is that, while these tornadoes are hollow, even through the trunk or tongue down to its contact with the earth, that hollow is caused by a constant suction, through which a steady stream of debris is flowing, to be sown broadcast for miles around after emerging from the open top of the so-called balloon."
"But it isn't at all like that," eagerly cried Waldo, pointing to where the fragments were flowing upward through those walls themselves, yet far enough from that hollow interior to be but indistinctly seen save on rare occasions. "Look at 'em scoot, will ye? Oh, if we could only climb up like that!"
Professor Featherwit was keenly watching and closely studying that very phenomena through all, and now he gave a queer little chuckle, as he nodded his head with vigour, before dryly speaking.
"Well, it might be done; yes, it might be done, and that with no very serious difficulty, my lad."
"How? Why not try it on, then?"
"To meet with instant death outside?" sharply queried Bruno. "It would be suicidal to make the attempt, even if we could; which I doubt."
Waldo gave a sudden cry, pointing upward where, far above that destructive storm, could be seen a brace of buzzards floating on motionless wings, wholly undisturbed by the tumult below.
"If we were only like that!" the lad cried, longingly. "If a flying-machine could be built like those turkey-buzzards! I wish—well, I do suppose they're about the nastiest varmints ever hatched, but just now I'd be willing to swap, and wouldn't ask any boot, either!"
Apparently the professor paid no attention to this boyish plaint, for he was fumbling in the locker, then withdrew his hand and uncoiled an ordinary fish-line, with painted float attached.
Before either brother could ask a question, or even give a guess at his purpose, Professor Phaeton flung hook and cork into those circling currents, only to have the whole jerked violently out of his grip, the line flying upward, to vanish from the sight of all.
That jerk was powerful enough to cut through the skin of his hand, but the professor chuckled like one delighted, as he sucked away the few drops of blood before adding:
"I knew it! It CAN be done, and if the worst should come to pass, why should it not be done?"
Before an answer could be vouchsafed by either of the brothers, the pall swooped down upon them once more, and again the supply of natural air was shut off, while their vessel was rocked and swayed crazily, just as though the delayed end was at last upon them.
For several minutes this torture endured, each second of which appeared to be an hour to those imperilled beings, who surely must have perished, as they lay pinned fast to the floor of the aerostat by that pitiless weight, only for the precious air-tubes in connection with that cylinder of compressed air.
After a seeming age of torment the awful pressure was relaxed, leaving the trio gasping and shivering, as they lay side by side, barely conscious that life lingered, for the moment unable to lift hand or head to aid either self or another.
In spite of his far greater age, Professor Featherwit was first to rally, and his voice was about the first thing distinguished by the brothers, as their powers began to rally.
"Shall we take our chances, dear boys?" the professor was saying, in earnest tones. "I believe there is a method of escaping from this hell-chamber, although of what may lie beyond—"
"It can't well be worse than this!" huskily gasped Bruno.
"Anything—everything—just to get out o' here!" supplemented Waldo, for once all spirits subdued.
"It may be death for us all, even if we do get outside," gravely warned the professor. "Bear that in mind, dear boys. It may be that not one of us will escape with life, after—"
"How much better to remain here?" interrupted Bruno. "I felt death would be a mercy—then! And I'd risk anything, everything, rather than go through such another ordeal! I say,—escape!"
"Me too, all over!" vigorously decided Waldo, lifting himself to both knees as he added: "Tell us what to do, and here I am, on deck, uncle."
Even now Professor Phaeton hesitated, his eyes growing dimmer than usual as they rested upon one face after the other, for right well he knew how deadly would be the peril thus invited.
But, as the brothers repeated their cry, he turned away to swiftly knot a strong trail-rope to a heavy iron grapnel, leaving the other end firmly attached to a stanchion built for that express purpose.
"Hold fast, if you value life at all, dear boys!" he warned, then added: "Heaven be kind to you, even if my life pays the forfeit! Now!"
Without further delay, he cast the heavy grapnel into that mass of boiling vapour, then fell flat, as an awful jerk was given the aerostat.
CHAPTER V. THE PROFESSOR'S UNKNOWN LAND.
There was neither time nor opportunity for taking notes, for that long rope straightened out in the fraction of a second, throwing all prostrate as the flying-machine was jerked upward with awful force.
All around them raged and roared the mighty winds, while missiles of almost every description pelted and pounded both machine and inmates during those few seconds of extraordinary peril.
Fortunately neither the professor nor his nephews could fairly realise just what was taking place, else their brains would hardly have stood the test; and fortunately, too, that ordeal was not protracted.
A hideous experience while it lasted, those vicious currents dragging the aerostat upward out of the air-chamber by means of grapnel and rope, then casting all far away in company with wrecked trees and bushes, and even solider materials, all shrouded for a time in dust and debris, which hindered the eyesight of both uncle and nephews.
Through it all the brothers were dimly aware of one fact uncle Phaeton was shrilly bidding them cling fast and have courage.
All at once they felt as though vomited forth from a volcano which alternately breathed fire and ice, the clear light of evening bursting upon their aching, smarting eyes with actual pain, while that horrid roar of warring elements seemed to pass away in the distance, leaving them—where, and how?
"We're falling to—merciful heavens! Hold fast, all!" screamed the professor, desperately striving to regain full command of their air-ship. "The tiller is jammed, but—"
To all seeming, the aerostat had sustained some fatal damage during that brief eruption caused by the professor's little experiment, for it was pitching drunkenly end for end, refusing to obey the hand of its builder, bearing all to certain death upon the earth far below.
Half stupefied with fear, the brothers clung fast to the life-line and glared downward, noting, in spite of themselves, how swiftly yonder dark tree-tops and gray crags were shooting heavenward to meet them and claim the sacrifice.
With fierce energy Professor Featherwit jerked and wrenched at the steering-gear, uttering words such as had long been foreign to his lips, but then—just when destruction appeared inevitable—a wild cry burst from his lungs, as a broken bit of native wood came away in his left hand, leaving the lever free as of old!
And then, with a dizzying swoop and rapid recovery, the gallant air-ship came back to an even keel, sailing along with old-time grace and ease, barely in time to avoid worse mishap as the crest of a tall tree was brushed in their passage.
"Saved,—saved, my lads!" screamed the professor, as his heart-pet soared upward once more until well past the danger-line. "Safe and sound through all,—praises be unto the Lord, our Father!"
Neither brother spoke just then, for they lay there in half stupor, barely able to realise the wondrous truth: that their lives had surely been spared them, even as by a miracle!
That swooping turn now brought their faces towards the tornado, which was at least a couple of miles distant, rapidly making that distance greater even while continuing its work of destruction.
"And we—were in it!" huskily muttered Bruno, his lids closing with a shiver, as he averted his face, unwilling to see more.
"Heap sight worse than being in the soup, too, if anybody asks you," declared Waldo, beginning to rally both in strength and in spirit. "But—what's the matter with the old ship, uncle Phaeton?"
For the aerostat was indulging itself in sundry distressing gyrations, pretty much as a boy's kite swoops from side to side, when lacking in tail-ballast, while the professor seemed unable to keep the machine under complete control.
"Nothing serious, only—hold fast, all! I believe 'twould be as well to make our descent, for fear something—steady!"
Just ahead there appeared a more than usually open space in the forest, and, quite as much by good luck as through actual skill, Professor Featherwit succeeded in making a landing with no more serious mishap than sundry bruises and a little extra teeth-jarring.
As quickly as possible, both Bruno and Waldo pitched themselves out of the partially disabled aeromotor, the elder brother grasping the grapnel and taking a couple of turns of the strong rope around a convenient tree-trunk, lest the ship escape them altogether.
"No need, my gallant boy!" assured the professor, an instant later. "All is well,—all IS well, thanks to an over-ruling Providence!"
In spite of this expressed confidence, he hurriedly looked over his pet machine, taking note of such injuries as had been received during that remarkable journey, only giving over when fairly satisfied that all damage might be readily made good, after which the aerostat would be as trustworthy as upon its first voyage on high.
Then, grasping the brothers each by a hand, he smiled genially, then lifted eyes heavenward, to a moment later sink upon his knees with bowed head and hands folded across his bosom.
Bruno and Waldo imitated his action, and, though no audible words were spoken, never were more heartfelt prayers sent upward, never more grateful thanks given unto the Most High.
Boy, youth, and man alike seemed fairly awed into silence for the next few minutes, unable to so soon cast off the spell which had fallen upon them, one and each, when realising how mercifully their lives had been spared, even after all earthly hope had been abandoned.
As usual, however, Waldo was first to rally, and, after silently moving around the aerostat, upon which the professor was already busily at work by the last gleams of the vanished sun, he paused, legs separated, and hands thrust deep into pockets, head perking on one side as he spoke, drawlingly:
"I say, uncle Phaeton?"
"What is it, Waldo?"
"It'll never do to breathe even a hint of all this, will it?"
"Why so, pray?"
"Whoever heard it would swear we were bald-headed liars right from Storytown! And yet,—did it really happen, or have I been dreaming all the way through?"
Professor Featherwit gave a brief, dry chuckle at this, rising erect to cast a deliberate glance around their present location, then speaking:
"Without I am greatly mistaken, my dear boy, you will have still other marvellous happenings to relate ere we return to what is, rightfully or wrongfully, called civilisation."
"Is that so? Then you really reckon—"
"For one thing, my lad, we are now fairly entered upon a terra incognita, so far as our own race is concerned. In other words,—behold, the Olympics!"
Both Bruno and Waldo cast their eyes around, but only a circumscribed view was theirs. The shades of evening were settling fast, and on all sides they could see but mighty trees, rugged rocks, a mountain stream from whose pebbly bed came a soothing murmur.
"Nothing so mighty much to brag of, anyway," irreverently quoth Waldo, after that short-lived scrutiny. "It wouldn't fetch a dollar an acre at auction, and for my part,—wonder when the gong will sound for supper?"
That blunt hint was effective, and, letting the subject drop for the time being, even the professor joined in the hurry for an evening meal, to which one and all felt able to do full justice.
Although some rain had fallen at this point as well, no serious difficulty was experienced in kindling a fire, while Waldo had little trouble in heaping up a bounteous supply of fuel.
Through countless ages the forest monarchs had been shedding their superfluous boughs, while here and there lay an entire tree, overthrown by some unknown power, and upon which the brothers made heavy requisition.
Professor Featherwit took from the locker a supply of tinned goods, together with a patent coffee-pot and frying-pan, so convenient where space is scarce and stowage-room precious.
With water from the little river, it took but a few minutes more to scent the evening with grateful fumes, after which the adventurous trio squatted there in the ruddy glow, eating, sipping, chatting, now and again forced to give thanks for their really miraculous preservation after all human hopes had been exhausted.
Although Professor Featherwit was but little less thankful for the wondrous leniency shown them, he could not altogether refrain from mourning the loss of his camera, with its many snap-shots at the tornado itself, to say nothing of what he might have secured in addition, while riding the storm so marvellously.
More to take his thoughts away from that loss than through actual curiosity in the subject offered by way of substitute, Bruno asked for further light upon the so-called terra incognita.
"Of course it isn't really an unknown land, though, uncle Phaeton?" he added, almost apologetically. "In this age, and upon our own continent, such a thing is among the impossibilities."
"Indeed? And, pray, how long since has it been that you would, with at least equal positivity, have declared it impossible to enter a tornado while in wildest career, yet emerge from it with life and limb intact?"
"Yes, uncle, but—this is different, by far."
"In one sense, yes; in another, no," affirmed the professor, with emphatic nod, brushing the tips of his fingers together, as he moved back to assume a more comfortable position inside the air-ship, then quickly preparing a pipe and tobacco for his regular after-meal smoke.
A brief silence, then the professor spoke, clearly, distinctly:
"Washington has her great unknown land, quite as much as has the interior of Darkest Africa, my boys, besides enjoying this peculiar advantage: while adventurous white men have traversed those benighted regions in every direction, even though little permanent good may have been accomplished, this terra incognita remains virgin in that particular sense of the word."
"You mean, uncle?"
"That here in the Olympic region you see what is literally an unknown, unexplored scope of country, as foreign to the foot of mankind as it was countless ages gone by. So far as history reads, neither white man nor red has ever ventured fairly within these limits; a mountainous waste which rises from the level country, within ten or fifteen miles of the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, in the north, the Pacific Ocean in the west, Hood's Canal in the east, and the barren sand-hills lying to the far south.
"This irregular range is known upon the map as the Olympics, and, rising to the height of from six to eight thousand feet, shut in a vast unexplored area.
"The Indians have never penetrated it, so far as can be ascertained, for their traditions say that it is inhabited by a very fierce tribe of warriors, before whose might and strange weapons not one of the coast tribes can stand."
"One of the Lost Tribes of Israel, shouldn't wonder," drawlingly volunteered Waldo, stifling a yawn, and forced to rub his inflamed eyes with a surreptitious paw.
Professor Featherwit, though plainly absorbed in his curious theory, was yet quick to detect this evidence of weariness, and laughed a bit, with change of both tone and manner, as he spoke further:
"That forms but a partial introductory to my lecture, dear lads, but perhaps it might be as well to postpone the rest for a more propitious occasion. You have undergone sore trials, both of—Hark!"
Some sound came to his keen ears, which the brothers failed to catch, but as they bent their heads in listening, another noise came, which proved startling enough, in all conscience,—a shrill, maniacal screech, which sent cold chills running races up each spine.
CHAPTER VI. A BRACE OF UNWELCOME VISITORS.
Instinctively the brothers drew nearer each other, as though for mutual protection, each one letting hand drop to belt where a revolver was habitually carried, but which was lacking now, thanks to the great haste with which they had taken wing at the approach of the tornado.
"What is it? What can it mean?" asked Bruno and Waldo, almost in the same breath, as those fierce echoes died away in the distance.
Professor Featherwit made no immediate reply, but by the glow of yonder camp-fire he fumbled inside the magic locker, fetching forth firearms, then speaking in hushed tones:
"Wait. Listen for—I knew it!"
From the opposite quarter came what might easily have been an echo of that first wild screech, only louder, longer, more savage, if such a thing be possible.
Prepared though they now were, neither brother could refrain from shrinking and shuddering, so hideously that cry sounded in their ears. But their uncle spoke in cool, clear tones:
"There is nothing supernatural about that, my lads. A panther or mountain lion, I dare say, scenting the fumes of our cookery, and coming to claim a share."
"Then it isn't—Nothing spookish, uncle Phaeton?" ventured Waldo, in slightly unsteady tones.
The professor gave swift assurance upon that point, and, rallying as few youngsters would have done under like circumstances, the brothers grasped the weapons supplied their hands, waiting and watching for what was to come.
Once, twice, thrice those savage calls echoed far and wide, but with each repetition losing a portion of their terrors; and knowing now that prowling beasts surely were drawing nigh the camp-fire, the flying machine was abandoned by the trio, all drawing closer to the fire, which might prove no slight protection against attack.
Then followed a period of utter silence, during which their eyes roved restlessly around, striving to sight the four-footed enemy ere an actual attack could be made.
Professor Featherwit was first to glimpse a pair of greenish eyes in silent motion, and, giving a low hiss of warning to his nephews, that same sound serving to check further progress on the part of the wild beast, his short rifle came to a level, then emitted a peculiar sound.
Only the keenest of ears could have noted that, for only the fraction of an instant later followed a sharp explosion, the darkness beyond being briefly lit up by a yellowish glare.
"That's enough,—beware its mate!" cried the professor, keenly alert for whatever might ensue; but the words were barely across his lips when, with a vicious snarl, a furry shape came flying through the air, knocking Featherwit over as he instinctively ducked his head with arm flying up as additional guard.
Both man and beast came very near falling into the fire itself, and there ensued a wild, confused scramble, out of which the brothers singled their enemy, Waldo opening fire with a revolver, at close range, each shot causing the lion to yell and snarl most ferociously.
A cat-like recovery, then the fatal leap might have followed, for the confused professor was rising to his feet again, fairly in front of the enraged brute; but ere worse came, Waldo and Bruno were to the rescue, one firing as rapidly as possible, his brother driving a keen-bladed knife to the very hilt just back of that quivering forearm.
One mad wrestle, in which both lads were overthrown, then the gaunt and muscular brute stretched its length in a shivering throe, dead even while it strove to slay.
Just as the professor hurried to the front, beseeching his boys to keep out of peril if they loved him; at which Waldo laughed outright, although never had he felt a warmer love for the same odd-speaking, queer-acting personage than right at that moment.
"I'm all right; how's it with you, sir? And—Bruno?"
"Without a scratch to remember it by," promptly asserted the elder brother, likewise regaining his feet and taking hasty account of stock. "No fault of his, though!" giving that carcass a kick as he spoke. "My gracious! I caught just one glimpse of them, and I was ready to make affidavit that each fang would measure a foot, while his claws—"
"Would pass through an elephant and clinch on the other side," declared Waldo, stooping far enough to lift one of those armed paws. "But, I say, Bruno, how awfully they have shrunk, since then!"
Whether so intended or not, this characteristic break caused a mutual laugh, and, as there was neither sound nor sign of further danger from like source, one and all satisfied their curiosity by minutely inspecting the huge brute, stirring up the fire for that purpose.
"An ugly customer, indeed, if we had given him anything like a fair show," gravely uttered the professor. "Only for your prompt assistance, my dear boys, what would have become of poor me?"
"We acted on our own account, as well, please remember, uncle. And even so, after all you have done for us since—"
"What was it you shot at, uncle Phaeton?" interrupted Waldo, who was constitutionally averse to aught which savoured of sentiment. "Another one of these—little squirrels, was it?"
Snatching up a blazing brand, the lad moved off in that direction, whirling the torch around his head until it burst into clear flame, then lowering it closer to a bloody heap of fur and powerful limbs, to give a short ejaculation of wondering awe.
It was a headless body upon which he gazed, ragged fragments of skin and a few splinters of bone alone remaining to tell that a solid skull had so recently been thereon.
Professor Phaeton gave another of his peculiar little chuckles, as he drew near, then patted the compact little rifle with which he had wrought such extraordinary work: a weapon of his own invention, as were the dynamite-filled shells to match.
"Although I am rather puny myself, boys, with this neat little contrivance I could fairly well hold my own against man or beast," he modestly averred.
"A modern David," gravely added Bruno, while Waldo chimed in with:
"What a dandy Jack the Giant-killer you would have been, uncle Phaeton, if you had only lived in the good old days! I wish—and yet I don't, either! Of course, it might have been jolly old sport right then, but now,—where'd I be, to-day?"
"A day on which has happened a miracle far more marvellous than all that has been set down in fairyland romance, my dear son," earnestly spoke the professor. "And when the astounding truth shall have been published, broadcast, throughout all Christendom, what praises—"
"How thoroughly we shall be branded liars, and falsificationers from 'way up the crick'!" exploded the youngster, making a wry grimace and moving on to view the headless lion from a different standpoint.
"He means well, uncle Phaeton," assured Bruno, in lowered tones. "He would not knowingly hurt your feelings, sir, but—may I speak out?"
"Why not?" quickly. "Surely I am not one to stand in awe of, lad?"
"One to be loved and reverenced, rather," with poorly hidden emotion; then rallying, to add, "But when one finds it impossible to realise all that has happened this afternoon, when one feels afraid to even make an effort at such belief, how can the boy be blamed for feeling that all others would pronounce us mad or—wilful liars?"
Professor Phaeton saw the point, and made a wry grimace while roughing up his pompadour and brushing his closely trimmed beard with doubtful hand. After all, was the whole truth to be ever spoken?
"Well, well, we can determine more clearly after fully weighing the subject," he said, turning back towards the flying-machine. "And, after all, what has happened to us thus far may not seem so utterly incredible after our explorations are completed."
"Of this region, do you mean, sir?"
"Of the Olympic mountains, and all their mountainous chain may encompass,—yes," curtly spoke the man of hopes, stepping inside the aerostat to perfect his arrangements for the night.
Waldo took greater pleasure in viewing the mountain lion towards whose destruction he had so liberally contributed, but when he spoke of removing the skin, Bruno objected.
"Why take so much trouble for nothing, Waldo? Even if we could stow the pelts away on board, they would make a far from agreeable burden. And if what I fancy lies before us is to come true, the more lightly we are weighted, the more likely we are to come safely to—well, call it civilisation, just for a change."
"Then you believe that uncle Phaeton is really in earnest about exploring this region, Bruno?"
"He most assuredly is. Did you ever know him to speak idly, or to be otherwise than in earnest, Waldo?"
"Well, of course uncle is all right, but—sometimes—"
A friendly palm slipped over those lips, cutting short the speech which might perchance have left a sting behind. And yet the worthy professor had no more enthusiastic acolyte than this same reckless speaking youngster, when the truth was all told.
Leaving the animals where they had fallen, for the time being, the brothers passed over to where rested the aeromotor, finding the professor busily engaged in rigging up a series of fine wires, completely surrounding the flying-machine, save for one narrow, gate-like arrangement.
"Beginning to feel as though you could turn in for all night, eh, my boys?" came his cheery greeting.
"Well, somehow I do feel as though 'the sandman' had been making his rounds rather earlier than customary," dryly said Waldo, winking rapidly. "I believe there must have been a bit more wind astir to-day than common, although neither of you may have noticed the fact."
Professor Featherwit chuckled softly while at work, but neither he nor Bruno made reply in words. And then, his arrangements perfected save for closing the circuit, which could only be done after all hands had entered the air-ship, he spoke to the point:
"Come, boys. You've had a rough bit of experience this day, and there may be still further trouble in store, here in this unknown land. Better make sure of a full night's rest, and thus have a reserve fund to draw upon in case of need."
There was plenty of sound common sense in this adjuration, and, only taking time to procure a can of fresh water from yonder stream, the two youngsters stepped within that charmed circle, permitting their uncle to close the circuit, and then test the queer contrivance to make sure all was working nicely.
A confused sound broke forth, resembling the faraway tooting of tin horns, which blended inharmoniously with the ringing of nearer bells, all producing a noise which was warranted to arouse the heaviest sleeper from his soundest slumber.
"That will give fair warning in case any intruder drifts this way," declared the professor, chucklingly, then sinking down and wrapping himself up in a close-woven blanket, similar to those employed by the boys.
"Even a ghost, or a goblin, do you reckon, uncle Phaeton?"
"Should such attempt to intrude, yes. Go to sleep, you young rascal!"
But that proved to be far more readily spoken than lived up to. Not but that the brothers were weary, jaded, and sore of muscle enough to make even the thought of slumber agreeable; but their recent experience had been so thrilling, so nerve-straining, so far apart from the ordinary routine of life, that hours passed ere either lad could fairly lose himself in sleep.
Still, when unconsciousness did steal over their weary brains, it proved to be all the more complete, and after that neither Bruno nor Waldo stirred hand or foot until, well after the dawn of a new day, Professor Featherwit shook first one and then the other, crying shrilly:
"Turn out, youngsters! A new day, and plenty of work to be done!"
CHAPTER VII. THE PROFESSOR'S GREAT ANTICIPATIONS.
A stretch and a yawn, which in Waldo's case ended in a prolonged howl, which would not have disgraced either of their four-footed visitors of the past evening, then the brothers Gillespie sprung forth from the flying-machine, entering upon a race for the brawling mountain stream, "shedding" their garments as they ran.
"First man in!" cried Bruno, whose clothes seemed to slip off the more readily; but Waldo was not to be outdone so easily, and, reckless of the consequences, he plunged into the eddying pool, with fully half of his daylight rig still in place.
The water proved to be considerably deeper than either brother had anticipated, and Waldo vanished from sight for a few seconds, then reappearing with lusty puff and splutter, shaking the pearly drops from his close-clipped curls, while ranting:
"Another vile fabrication nailed to the standard of truth, and clinched by the hammer of—ouch!"
A wild flounder, then the youngster fairly doubled himself up, acting so strangely that Bruno gave a little cry of alarm; but ere the elder brother could take further action, Waldo swung his right arm upward and outward, sending a goodly sized trout flashing through the air to the shore, crying in boyish enthusiasm:
"Glory in great chunks! I want to camp right here for a year to come! Will ye look at that now?"
Bruno had to dodge that writhing missile, and, before he could fairly recover himself, Waldo had floundered ashore, leaving a yeasty turmoil in his wake, but then throwing up a dripping hand, and speaking in an exaggerated whisper:
"Whist, boy! On your life, not so much as the ghost of a whimper! The hole's ramjammed chuck full of trout, and we'll have a meal fit for the gods if—where's my fishing tackle?"
Bruno picked up the trout, so queerly brought to light, really surprised, but feigning still further, as he made his examination.
"It really IS a trout, and—how long have you carried this about in your clothes, Waldo Gillespie?"
"Not long enough for you to build a decent joke over it, brother mine. Just happened so. Tried to ram its nose in one of my pockets, and of course I had to take him in out of the wet. Pool's just full of them, too, and I wouldn't wonder if—oh, quit your talking, and do something, can't you, boy?"
Vigorously though he spoke, Waldo wound up with a shiver and sharp chatter of teeth as the fresh morning air struck through his dripping garments. He gave a coltish prance, as he turned to seek his fishing tackle; but, unfortunately for his hopes of speedy sport, the professor was nigh enough to both see and hear, and at once took charge of the reckless youngster.
"Wet to the hide, and upon an empty stomach, too! You foolish child! Come, strip to the buff, and put on some of these garments until—here by the fire, Waldo."
And thus taken in tow, the lad was forced to slowly but thoroughly toast his person beside the freshly started fire, ruefully watching his brother deftly handle rod and line, in a remarkably short space of time killing trout enough to furnish all with a bounteous meal.
"And I was the discoverer, while you reap all the credit, have all the fun!" dolefully lamented Waldo, when the catch was displayed with an ostentation which may have covered just a tiny bit of malice. "I'll put a tin ear on you, Amerigo Vespucius!"
"All right; we'll have a merry go together, after you've cleaned the trout for cooking, lad," laughed his elder.
Waldo gazed reproachfully into that bright face for a brief space, then bowed head in joined hands, to sob in heartfelt fashion, his sturdy frame shaking with poorly suppressed grief—or mirth?
Bruno passed an arm caressingly over those shoulders, murmuring words of comfort, earnestly promising to never sin again in like manner, provided he could find forgiveness now. And then, with deft touch, that same hand held his garment far enough for its mate to let slip a wriggling trout adown his brother's back.
Waldo howled and jumped wildly, as the cold morsel slipped along his spine, and ducking out of reach, the elder jester called back:
"Land him, boy, and you've caught another fish!"
Although laughing heartily himself, Professor Featherwit deemed it a part of wisdom to interfere now, and, ere long, matters quieted down, all hands engaged in preparing the morning meal, for which all teeth were now fairly on edge.
If good nature had been at all disturbed, long before that breakfast was despatched it was fully restored, and of the trio, Waldo appeared to be the most enthusiastic over present prospects.
"Why, just think of it, will you?" he declaimed, as well as might be with mouth full of crisply fried mountain trout, "where the game comes begging for you to bowl it over, and the very fish try to jump into your pockets—"
"Or down your back, Amerigo," interjected Bruno, with a grin.
"Button up, or you'll turn to be a Sorry-cus—tomer, old man," came the swift retort, with a portentous frown. "But, joking aside, why not? With such hunting and fishing, I'd be willing to sign a contract for a round year in this region."
"To say nothing of exploration, and such discoveries as naturally attend upon—"
"Then you really mean it all, uncle Phaeton?"
Leaning back far enough to pluck a handful of green leaves, which fairly well served the purpose of a napkin, Professor Featherwit brought forth pipe and pouch, maintaining silence until the fragrant tobacco was well alight. Then he gave a vigorous nod of his head, to utter:
"It has been the dearest dream of my life for more years gone by than you would readily credit, my lads; or, in fact, than I would be wholly willing to confess. And it was with an eye single to this very adventure that I laboured to devise and perfect yonder machine."
"A marvel in itself, uncle Phaeton. Only for that, where would we have been, yesterday?" seriously spoke the elder Gillespie.
"I know where we wouldn't have been: inside that blessed cy-nado!"
"Nor here, where you can catch brook trout in your clothes without the trouble of taking them off, youngster."
"And where you'll catch a precious hiding, without you let up harping on that old string; it's way out of tune already, old man."
"Tit for tat. Excuse us, please, uncle Phaeton. We're like colts in fresh pasture, this morning," brightly apologised Bruno, for both.
Apparently the professor paid no attention to that bit of sparring between his nephews, staring into the glowing camp-fire with eyes which surely saw more than yellow coals or ruddy flames could picture; eyes which burned and sparkled with all the fires of distant youth.
"The dearest dream of all my life!" he repeated, in half dreamy tones, only to rouse himself, with a a start and shoulder shake, an instant later, forcing a bright smile as he glanced from face to face. "And why not? How better could my last years be employed than in piercing the clouds of mystery, and doubt, and superstition, with which this vast tract has been enveloped for uncounted ages?"
"Is it really so unknown, then, uncle Phaeton?" hesitatingly asked Bruno, touched, in spite of himself, by that intensely earnest tone and expression. "Of course, I know what the Indians say; they are full of a rude sort of superstitious awe, which—"
"Which is one of the surest proofs that truth forms a foundation for that very superstition," quickly interjected the professor. "It is an undisputed fact that there are hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of terra incognita, lying in this corner of Washington Territory. No white man ever fairly penetrated these wilds, even so far as we may have been carried while riding the tornado. Or, if so, he assuredly has never returned, or made known his discoveries."
"Provided there was anything beyond the ordinary to see or experience, shouldn't we add, uncle?" suggested Waldo, modestly.
"There is,—there must be! No matter how wildly improbable their traditions may seem in our judgment, it only takes calm investigation to bring a fair foundation to light. In regard to this vast scope of country, go where you will among the natives, question whom you see fit, as to its secrets, and you will meet with the same results: a deep-seated awe, a belief which cannot be shaken, that here strange monsters breed and flourish, matched in magnitude and power by an armed race of human beings, before whose awful might other tribes are but as ants in the pathway of an elephant."
Waldo let escape a low, prolonged whistle of mingled wonder and incredulity, but Bruno gave him a covert kick, himself too deeply interested to bear with a careless interruption just then.
"Of course there may be something of exaggeration in all this," admitted the enthusiastic professor. "Undoubtedly, there is at least a fair spice of that; but, even so, enough remains to both waken and hold our keenest interest. Listen, and take heed, my good lads.
"You have often enough, of late days, noticed these mountains, and if you remark their altitude, the vast scope of country they dominate, the position they fill, you must likewise realise one other fact: that an immense quantity of snow in winter, rain in spring and autumn, surely must fall throughout the Olympics. Understand?"
"Certainly; why not, uncle Phaeton?"
"Then tell me this: where does all the moisture go to? What becomes of the surplus waters? For it is an acknowledged fact that, though rivers and brooks surely exist in the Olympics, not one of either flows away from this wide tract of country!"
The professor paused for a minute, to let his words take full effect, then even more positively proceeded:
"You may say, what I have had others offer by way of solution, that all is drained into a mighty inland sea or enormous lake. Granting so much, which I really believe to be the truth as far as it goes, why does that lake never overflow? Of all that surely must drain into its basin, be that enormously wide and deep as it may, how much could ordinary evaporation dispose of? Only an infinitesimal portion; scarcely worth mentioning in such connection. Then,—what becomes of the surplusage?"
Another pause, during which neither Gillespie ventured a solution; then the professor offered his own suggestion:
"It must flow off in some manner, and what other manner can that be than—through a subterranean connection with the Pacific Ocean?"
Bruno gave a short ejaculation at this, while Waldo broke forth in words, after his own particular fashion:
"Jules Verne redivivus! Why can't WE take a trip through the centre of the earth, or—or—any other little old thing like that?"
"With the tank of compressed air as a life-preserver?" laughed Bruno, in turn. "That might serve, but; unfortunately, we have only the one, and we are three in number, boy."
"Only two, now; I'm squelched!" sighed the jester, faintly.
If the professor heard, he heeded not. Still staring with vacant gaze into the fire, his face bearing a rapt expression curious to see, he broke into almost unconscious speech:
"An enormous inland sea! Where float the mighty ichthyosaurus, the megalosaurus, in company with the gigantic plesiosaurus! Upon whose sloping shores disport the enormous mastodon, the stately megatherium, the tremendous—eh?"
For Waldo was now afoot, brandishing a great branch broken from a dead tree, uttering valiant war-whoops, and dealing tremendous blows upon an imaginary enemy, spouting at the top of his voice a frenzied jargon, which neither his auditors nor himself could possibly make sense out of.
Bruno, ever sensitive through his affectionate reverence for their uncle, caught the youngster, and cast him to earth, whereupon Waldo pantingly cried:
"Go on, please, uncle Phaeton. It's next thing to a museum and menagerie combined, just to hear—"
"Will you hush, boy?" demanded Bruno, yet unable to wholly smother a laugh, so ridiculous did it all sound and seem.
But Professor Featherwit declined, his foxy face wrinkling in a bashful laugh. Whether so intended or not, he had been brought down to earth from that dizzy flight, and now was fairly himself again.
"Well, my dear boys, I dare say it seems all a matter of jest and sport to you; yet, after our riding in the centre of a tornado for uncounted miles, coming forth with hardly a scratch or a bruise to show for it all, who dare say such things may not be, even yet?"
"But,—those strange creatures are gone; the last one perished thousands upon thousands of years ago, uncle Phaeton."
"So it is said, and so follows the almost universal belief. Yet I have seen, felt, cooked, tasted, and ate to its last morsel a steak from a mammoth. True, the creature was dead; had been preserved for ages, no doubt, within the glacier which finally cast it forth to human view; yet who would have credited such a discovery, only fifty years ago? He who dared to even hint at such a thing would have been derided and laughed at, pronounced either fool or lunatic. And so,—if we should happen to discover one or all of those supposedly extinct creatures here in this terra incognita, I would be overjoyed rather than astounded."
Bruno looked grave at this conclusion, but Waldo was not so readily impressed, and, with shrugging shoulders, he made answer:
"Well, uncle, I'm not quite so ambitious as all that comes to. May I give you my idea of it all?"
CHAPTER VIII. A DUEL TO THE DEATH.
Professor Featherwit nodded assent, and, after a brief chuckle, Waldo resumed:
"You can take all those big fellows with the jaw-breaking names, but as for me, smaller game will do. Maybe a fellow couldn't fill his bag quite so full, nor quite so suddenly, but there would be a great deal more sport, and a mighty sight less danger, I take it!"
It was by no means difficult to divine that the professor had not yet spoken all that busied his brain, but the thread was broken, his pipe was out, and, emptying the ashes by tapping pipe-bowl against the heel of his shoe, he rose erect, once more the man of action.
"You will have to clear up, lads, for I must make such few repairs as are necessary to restore the aerostat to a state of efficiency. So long as that remains in serviceable condition, we will always have a method of advance or retreat. Without it—well, I'd rather not think of the alternative."
That dry tone and quiet sentence did more than all else to impress the brothers with a sense of their unique position. Back came the remembrance of all they had gathered concerning this strange scope of country since first settling down fairly within the shadows of the Olympics, there to put that strange machine together, preparing for what was to prove a wonder-tour through many marvellous happenings.
Times beyond counting they had been assured by the natives that no mortal could fairly penetrate that vast wilderness. Natural obstacles were too great for any man to surmount, without saying aught of what lay beyond; of the enormous animals, such as the civilised world never knew or fought with; of the terrible natives, taller than the pines, larger than the hills, more powerful by far than the gods themselves, eager to slay and to devour,—so eager that, at times, living flesh and blood was more grateful than all to their depraved tastes!
"Do you really reckon there is anything in it all, Bruno?" asked the younger brother in lowered tones, glancing across to where their uncle was busily engaged in those comparatively trifling repairs.
"It hardly seems possible, and yet—would the members of four different tribes tell a story so nearly alike, without they had at least a foundation of truth to go upon?"
"That's right. And yet—the inland sea sounds natural enough. We know, too, that there are such things as underground rivers, outside of Jules Verne's yarns. But those animals,—or reptiles,—which?"