Chapter XVIII. A Broken Match Safe
 

"Why don't she go up?" asked Jack, as the boys crouched in the grove. "I don't mind seeing a little fourth of July!"

"She's coming," Frank answered. "Do you see the light in the cellar? That's the fuse burning."

"It must be a long one," Jimmie said. "Gee, but I was scared stiff when I saw it burnin' right under where you all were!"

"How did the sneak who set the fuse on fire ever get down there?" wondered Jack.

"Must have been there all the time," Jimmie volunteered.

"But he didn't have the powder, or the dynamite, or whatever thing he figured on blowing us up with, in his pockets, did he?" asked Jack.

"I guess the old Chink down the road, the fellow who kept me talking at the gate, had something to do with storing the explosive there," Ned remarked. "I presume the plot was laid to blow us up the minute the effort to destroy us at the ruined temple failed."

"Merry little time we're having," Frank laughed. "Here, kid, where are you going?" he added, as Jimmie moved away.

"I'm goin' to see why that don't go bang!" answered the boy.

Ned tried to stop him, but the little fellow dodged away and disappeared around an angle of the house.

The boys waited in suspense for a moment, expecting every instant to witness the explosion, then Frank and Jack darted around the corner, in quest of Jimmie.

"Come back!" Ned called, but they paid no heed.

Both Ned and the Captain sprang after the lads, the latter expressing in very vigorous language his opinion of boys who would take such risks out of curiosity.

"I'd rather wait an hour for an explosion than go up to see why it didn't come off in time," he said. "That Jimmie needs a good beating. He'll get it, too, if he doesn't behave!"

Ned laughed, serious as the situation was, at the thought of what would be apt to happen if the Captain should lay hands on the little fellow in anger. He would have the other boys on his hands in a second!

When Ned rounded the corner he saw Jimmie's heels half blocking a cellar window. Thick smoke was oozing out around him, and Frank and Jack were trying to pull him back.

"You let go!" they heard the little fellow shout. "I guess I know what I'm doin'. You let go!"

"Wait!" Ned said, then he stooped over and called out to Jimmie:

"Is the fuse out?"

"Sure!" was the reply. "'Sure the fuse is out, but before it went out it set fire to something on the cellar bottom, an' the blaze is workin' its way up to the powder, or whatever it is. Ouch!" he added, as Jack gave a pull at his foot. "You let go!"

"Let him go," Ned advised. "Perhaps he can get in there in time to prevent the explosion."

"The little gink!" Jack exclaimed, "I wanted to see the thing bust up. Now he's spoiled it!"

In a moment the boy was in the cellar, and Ned was not far away when the creeping flame was extinguished. While Frank and Jack looked in at the window, shielding their eyes and faces from the smudge as well as it was possible to do, Ned called out to them:

"Tell Captain Martin to keep his men on guard around the house. The scamps who did this may be up to some other trick. They're determined that we shall never get to Peking!"

Frank crawled through the window and stood by Ned's side, searchlight in hand. Just about underneath the center of the house, was a half barrel of gunpowder.

"That would have done the business," Frank observed, and Jimmie made a wry face. "If this little nuisance hadn't seen the fuse burning, we might have been killed."

"Aw, go on!" Jimmie said. "The fuse went out, didn't it? Gave us a good scare, anyway. I'm six inches shorter than I was before I saw the blaze creepin' along like a bloomin' snake!"

"How did it affect your appetite?" asked Frank.

"If you mention anythin' to eat," Jimmie answered, "I'll have a fit. I don't know how people live in China, but I've been starved ever since I struck the country."

Flashlight in hand, Ned now devoted his whole attention to the floor of the cellar. There were marks of shoes here and there, and half-burned matches.

"It looks as if whoever did this job did it in a hurry," Ned said. "If the fuse had been set right it would have done its work. Do you see why it went out?"

"Well, there's a break in it, and the break is over a damp spot on the floor. The powder stuffed line burned to the break and there the flame went out. It burned slowly, anyway, which probably accounts for our being alive at this time."

Ned took a rule from his pocket and measured the shoe tracks on the floor. There were numerous tracks, but one was very distinct. This had been made by the man who rolled the half-barrel of powder to the place where it had been found.

The barrel had come upon a slight obstruction, and the man had evidently lifted and pulled at it until his shoe, by reason of the extra weight put upon it, had sunk deep into the light soil.

"That wasn't any Chink shoe," Jimmie said.

"No, it was a shoe made in America," Ned said. "It is comparatively a new shoe, too. I am wondering now why the American, or Englishman, or Frenchman, whatever he is, didn't hire some of the Chinks to do this work of laying the explosion."

"They're afraid," Jack volunteered.

There was a litter of half-burned matches near the barrel and Ned bent over and gathered them up. As he did so something bright lying on the ground, caught his eye. It was a gold rivet, or wire, not more than an inch long and about as thick as a knitting needle.

"What is it?" asked Frank.

"I should say," replied Ned, "that the fellow lost the cover to his match box here. This looks like the rivet which served for a hinge. The cover itself may be here."

But a close search did not reveal the cover, nor anything else of moment, in fact, and the boys soon left the cellar. Frank laughed as Ned placed the gold wire in his pocketbook.

"You are making quite a collection," he said.

"Yes," Jack added, "he has a state department seal, bits of broken sealing wax, and now a piece of a broken match safe. He'll set a trap with them directly!"

"The trap is already set!" Ned replied.

The long delay at the house made high speed necessary during the remainder of the run to Peking. The machines sparked and roared through that ancient land, bringing sleepy-eyed natives to doors and windows, and setting villages into whirls of excitement.

Captain Martin and one marine were with the boys, the rest having been left with the wounded men.

"My flying squadron is just beginning to fly," Ned said, as the machines rolled noisily down a hill from which the towers of the distant city showed. "And the smaller it becomes as we approach the end of the journey!"

"Suppose the Chinks attack the men left behind?" asked Jack.

"No danger of that," Ned replied. "They are not after the marines, but the Boy Scouts who had the nerve to cross the Pacific for the purpose of bringing a rascal to punishment."

This view of the case proved to be the correct one, as the marines were remarkably well treated by the natives, who gathered about them with many gestures and questions, all unintelligible to the warriors. The boys who were slowly drawing a slowly closing circle around the guilty ones were the persons in demand!

It was the middle of the forenoon when Ned and his companions reached the suburbs of the wonderful city. They attracted a great deal of attention as they wheeled through the straggling streets. They had not yet come to the wall, so the population was principally agricultural. Maize and millet are the principal products of the soil here, as the staple crops, wheat and rice, do not flourish well.

They had no difficulty in passing the gate which gave into the southern or "Chinese City." It is the northern part of Peking that is known to foreigners as "The Forbidden City." Here the rulers live in wonderful palaces. This is the old "Tartar City," too.

The second division of Peking is the business section. Here the boys drew up at a most uninviting native inn and asked a clerk who claimed to speak English for an interpreter. A snaky-looking fellow was finally produced, and Ned proceeded to question him about the show places of the town.

"Let him think we are American tourists," Ned said to his chums, "and we'll stand a better chance of getting into the diplomatic section of the town. Anyway, while we are here, we may as well see the sights."

After a midday luncheon Ned and Jimmie started out to look over the place. They were now in what is known as the general city, where the streets are from 140 to 200 feet wide. The thoroughfares are mostly unpaved, and the shops which line them are continuous, some green, some blue, some red, but all bustling with business.

The shops in this section of Peking are decorated with huge, staring signs, resplendent with Chinese characters highly gilt. Before the boys had traveled far they were forcibly reminded of the lower East Side of New York. The great thoroughfares roared with the rush of commerce.

Shopkeepers, peddlers, mountebanks, quack doctors, pedestrians rushing to and fro, all reminded the lads of the lower part of the big city on Manhattan island. The theaters and public places of amusement are situated in this part of Peking.

When Ned and Jimmie returned from the stroll they found Frank and Jack waiting for them with anxiety depicted on their faces.

"What have you been doing?" Frank asked. "I thought you came here to interview the American ambassador."

"All in good time," Ned replied, with a smile. "I want to pick up the American shoe print before I present my letter to the ambassador."

"Fine show you stand of picking up a shoe print in a crowd like that one out there!" Jack said. "It's worse than Coney Island on a midsummer Sunday."

"Perhaps I didn't use the right words," smiled Ned. "I might have said I was waiting for the American shoe man to pick me up."

"He's done that now, all right," Captain Martin said. "You had not been out of the house five minutes before the spies were thick as flies in the old Eighth ward. They are all about us now. Watch and see if we are ever alone."

Ned glanced about carelessly and nudged Frank with his elbow.

"That waiter?" he asked. "How long has he been loitering about the room?"

"Ever since we arrived. The men who have been entertaining us on the way were evidently waiting for us."

The boys were not in a private room, but in a public apartment where there were tables and refreshments.

"But that chap belongs here," Ned replied.

"Well, if you watch him, you will see that he is attending strictly to the wants of this party. If we call he'll wait on us. If any one else calls, another waiter glides over to him. Nice to be so exclusive, isn't it?"

"If you are right," Ned said, "it is time for us to move on."

"To the embassy?" asked Captain Martin. "You see," the Captain went on, "I'm rather anxious to land you boys under the protecting folds of the American flag, for there my responsibility ends."

"No, not to the embassy," Ned replied. "As yet I have nothing of importance to confide to the ambassador. I can only tell him that we are here, that we had numerous nibbles on the road from Taku, but that all the fish got away."

"Holy smoke!" exclaimed Jack. "I hope you don't think of staying out in the open until you can convey a couple of diplomats to the embassy! You can't catch your man single handed. You're not in New York now, but in a heathen town, a town where the life of a foreign devil is not worth a grain of rice."

"Just the same," Ned replied, "I'm going to stick around this town until I get what I want."

"In this dump?" asked Jack.

"No; there's an American hotel up the street--an American hotel operated by Chinks! We'll go there and take rooms and wait for something to turn up."

So, in spite of the protests of Captain Martin, the change was made, and late that night Ned awoke to find himself sitting up on the edge of his bed, automatic in hand, listening to the steady boring of a tool of some sort around the lock of his door!