Chapter II. A Disquieting Discovery
 

The four boys regarded each other in silence for a moment. Jack was the first to speak.

"How badly are the machines damaged?" he asked.

"Mine is all right," Jimmie reported, after a careful examination of his steel steed, "except that a couple of burrs are missing."

"And mine," Frank hastened to say, "is all right except that the oil feed is blocked and the electric battery is shut off--that is, it is so arranged that the machine will spark for a short distance and then buck. Great doings!"

"And yours, Jack?" asked Ned.

"Just a few burrs gone."

"And mine is o.k.," Ned went on, "except that the carburetor has been tampered with. I think we'll get off for Peking before long."

"How?" demanded Jimmie. "We can't make burrs out of wood, or patch up with rat pie, which seems to be about the only thing we have plenty of. I don't suppose we can get repairs in this yellow hole."

Ned took a handbag from under the burlap. "I am carrying my own repair shop with me," he said, taking out a box of burrs and a pair of pincers. "I've got all the small parts right here in duplicate, and some of the larger ones are in the big suitcase."

"You're a wonder!" Jimmie cried, dancing about his chum and wrinkling his nose until it looked like that of a comedian in a motion picture. "I wonder if you haven't got a hunk of Washington pie in that keyster!"

The lads fell to work on their machines, and in a very short time all were ready for the road. Then Ned put away his handbag and began an examination of the large suitcase, which contained the larger repairs for the motorcycles. It had not been molested.

"There's one thing certain," he said, "and that is that the Chinese who are watching us expect us to make a dash for Peking. They took the pains to leave our machines in such shape that their tampering with them would not be suspected. I'd like to know just when this mischief was accomplished."

"Yes," Frank observed, "they wanted us to get out of Taku and break down on the road to Tientsin. They would have us at their mercy out there-- or they figured it out that way."

"The work on the machines must have been done sometime during the day-- or last night," Ned replied. "Possibly while we were dozing."

"I don't believe it!" Jimmie insisted. "I've had me eyes open every minute to-day."

"Well," Ned went on, laughing, "we had a high wind yesterday, didn't we? A wind that tumbled the dust of the streets in upon us? Well," pointing to a portion of his machine frame which he had been careful not to touch, "here is some of the dust which fell upon the motorcycle then. The person who did the job brushed a lot of the dust away, so, you see, he must have worked since the dust fell."

"Did he brush it all away?" asked Jimmie.

"No," Ned replied, pointing, "here is a brace which he touched with his hands but did not wipe off. In a short time I'll tell you just what sort of a chap it was that did the trick."

The boy got his camera out of the suitcase and took a picture of the spot on the machine frame where the print of human fingers showed. The motorcycle owned by, or in charge of, Jimmie also showed a similar mark, and this, too, was photographed.

This completed, Ned laid the films aside for a time while he made a circuit of the old house, walking slowly as if out for chest exercise, but really seeing every square inch of the earth's surface where he walked. Once he dropped a pocketknife which he carried in his hand and stooped over to pick it up.

The boys thought he was a long time in securing the knife, although it was plainly in sight. When he stood up again and continued his circuit of the house there was a strange, inscrutable smile on his face.

"What is it?" asked Jack, the instant Ned entered the house.

"We've been blind and deaf since we have boon here," Ned answered. "Hostile influences have been operating all around us. Now," he continued, as Frank opened his lips to ask a question, "we'll see what sort of a tale the camera has to tell."

As he looked at the films his face hardened and his eyes snapped. In a moment he put the telltale sheets away.

"European fingerprints," he said, quietly, "and European footprints out there. It is not Chinamen that we have to look out for."

"What the Old Harry--"

Jimmie checked himself as a figure darkened the doorway. Ned stepped forward to greet the newcomer.

The visitor was a youngish man with black hair, growing well down on a narrow forehead, small black eyes, a straight-lipped mouth, and hard lines about his deep-set eyes. His manner and carriage was that of a man trained to military service.

"You are Mr. Nestor?" he asked, extending his hand as Ned approached him. "I have come a long distance to meet you," he added, before Ned could answer the question.

"From Washington?" asked Ned.

The visitor nodded; glanced sharply about the apartment, where the motorcycles were still lying, and then squatted on one of the burlap bags. Jimmie shook his fist behind the newcomer's back. It was evident that the boy did not like his appearance.

"I am Lieutenant Rae, of the Secret Service," he said, in a moment. "I have been delayed on my way here. You were about to start on without your final instructions?" he asked, lifting a pair of eyebrows which seemed to make his little black eyes smaller and more inscrutable than ever.

Ned looked at the man, now lolling back on the burlap, and for a moment made no reply. Then he lied deliberately--in the interest of Uncle Sam and human life, as he afterwards explained!

"No," he said, "we were merely overhauling the machines. We are in no haste to be away."

"I see," grinned the other. "You are taking life easily? Well, that is not so bad. However, you are to start on your journey early to-morrow morning."

"I shall be ready," Ned replied. "You have just landed?"

For just a second Lieutenant Rae's eyes sought the ground, then he lifted them boldly. Ned was watching his every movement.

"No," he said, then, "I came in three days ago, but I was obliged to await the movements of others before reporting to you."

Jimmie caught Frank by the arm and drew him out of the house. Out in the deserted garden--which was only a yard or two of hard-packed earth-- he whispered:

"That feller's a liar!"

"What makes you think so?" Frank asked.

"He's no Englishman," Jimmie insisted. "He's a Jap. You bet your last round iron man that's the truth. Now, what do you think he's doin' here?"

"Well," Frank replied, "I think you are right. He's not an Englishman. The nerve of him to put that up to us!"

"Perhaps he's the gazabo that monkeyed with our machines," suggested Jimmie. "Wish I'd 'a' caught him at it!"

"But Ned says that was an European," Frank said.

"Then they're thick around us," Jimmie went on, "and we're up to our necks in trouble. I wonder what instructions this Rae person will give Ned?"

"Suppose we go inside and see," Frank answered.

When the lads reached the interior of the house again Ned and Rae were bending over a road map of the country between Taku and Peking. The visitor was indicating a route with his pencil.

"Very well," Ned said, as if fully convinced of the honesty of the other, "now about the private orders. You understand, of course, that I know little concerning the work cut out for me."

"You are to receive final instructions at Peking."

Ned smiled, but there was something about the smile which told the boys that he was of their way of thinking.

"He's on!" Jimmie whispered in Frank's ear.

"You bet he is," was the reply.

"I'll come here in the morning," the visitor said, looking at his watch, "and go out with you. The chances are that we'll have to make a quick run. Machines in good order?" with a glance at the motorcycles lying against the wall.

"We haven't as yet looked them over carefully," Ned lied again, "but presume they are in good shape. As a matter of fact," he continued, hardly able to suppress a smile as Jimmie looked reprovingly at him, "as a matter of fact, we know little about the machines. This is new business for us."

Lieutenant Rae bowed himself out of the door, and the boys gathered in an inner room to discuss the situation.

"We may as well face the truth," Ned said, calmly. "The man who was to meet us here has fallen into the hands of our enemies. We are alone in China without instructions and surrounded by foes. Now, what shall we do? We may be able to reach the water front and get off to one of the British ships in sight."

"And go back?" demanded Jimmie. "Not for me! I'm goin' to stay an' see this thing out."

"That's me!" Frank said, and Jack echoed his words.

"Well, then," Ned went on, with a smile of satisfaction at the attitude of the lads, "if we are going on, we've got to get to Peking without delay. I'll tell you what I think. The conspirators are aware that we are trying to run them down. If they can stop us before we fully identify them, their part in the plot against Uncle Sam will never be known." Rest assured, then, that they will stop us if they can."

"Then it's us for the road to-night!" said Jimmie. "That is fine."

In referring to conspirators, Ned indicated the men who had been involved in a plot to get the United States into trouble with a foreign government over a shipment of gold to China. This shipment had gone to the bottom of the Pacific.

It had been claimed that the gold shipment, which was marked for the Chinese government, had really been intended for the revolutionary party, now becoming very strong. It was now insisted that the revolutionists had been posted as to the shipment, and that it was on the books for them to seize it the moment it left the protection of the American flag.

These claims having been made, and believed, in the state department of a foreign government, none too friendly to the government of the United States. A ship had been sent out to watch the transfer of the gold. At least, that was what had been claimed, but this ship, so sent out, had, by an "accident," rammed and sunk the treasure boat. If the Chinese government did not get the gold, neither did the leaders of the revolutionary party.

It had been claimed at Washington that the whole thing was a plot to discredit the United States government in the eyes of the nations of Europe, and Ned Nestor and his chums had been sent out to search the wreck for papers which would disprove the statements made. The papers had been secured.

The point now was to connect the foreign statesmen who had burned their fingers in the plot with the affair. Ned knew that the papers would establish the falsity of the charges, but he wanted to place the blame for the whole matter where it belonged. He wanted to track the man who had conferred with known conspirators back to his home. He wanted to be able to point out the treacherous government which had so sought to belittle the United States in the eyes of the world.

The boy had no doubt that this was actually the mission upon which he had been sent when ordered by the Secret Service department to report at Taku and there await instructions before proceeding to Peking. He did not understand why he had been instructed to make the trip to Peking on a motorcycle when there were easier ways, but he was quick to obey orders. Later on he learned just why this order had been given.

"Yes," Ned replied to Jimmie's remark, "I think we may as well set out for Peking to-night. If we wait until morning, we may not be at liberty to start out."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Jack.

"Study it out," smiled Ned, "and you may be able to find an answer."

While the boy was speaking, he bent over and looked keenly at a footprint on the earthen floor of the room. It was not such a print as the foot-covering of a Chinese man would leave. It had been made by the long heel of an European shoe.

When Ned looked closer, he saw that the ground was stained a deep red, that there were dark crimson spots on the window casing. Then he saw that a struggle must have taken place in the room, for the few things it held were in disorder.

"Boys," he said, "perhaps our Secret Service man got here before we did."