Chapter XIII. The Nelson in the Sky
 

"Well," Ned called back, as the new arrivals shouted down from the ledge, "what do you want?"

"We want to talk with you."

"Cripes," Jimmie grinned, "we're in good demand today. The stock of Boy Scouts must be gettin' shy!"

"Go on and talk, then," Ned answered, well satisfied as to what the fellows wanted.

"Shall we come down there?"

"You stay away!" Jimmie replied. "We're a little particular about our company!"

"Is that little runt speaking for you?" demanded the man on the ledge. "If he is, we'll do something besides talk."

"For the present he is," Ned replied. "What can I do for you?"

"You can surrender yourself. We have warrants for your arrest."

"Couldn't think of it!" was the cool reply. "We prefer to remain at liberty."

"I told you!" Collins grunted, rising from his reclining position and moving toward the ledge. "I told you that you'd get into trouble. You'll sweat for this!"

Jackson caught him by the shoulder and whirled him back.

"You stay here!" the ex-cowboy gritted. "The less trouble you make the better treatment you will receive."

"What are you doing to Collins?" asked the newcomer. "Tell him to come up here."

"I'm being held a prisoner!" Collins shouted. "Train your guns on these kids and drive them off. And find Lyman. He left the cavern, but he's somewhere about, for he answered a cowboy call not long ago."

"We already have Lyman!" was the answer. "He thought we were the friends who had called him and joined us. We'll take care of him, all right."

"That's fine business--not!" grunted Jimmie.

Ned was not a little disappointed by the announcement. With Lyman in the hands of his enemies, it might be impossible to get him back to Asuncion in time to save his concession.

And here was another difficulty, one which might bring on a war between the United States and Paraguay. Ned, as an official of the United States Secret Service, now knew that those high in authority in the government of Paraguay were involved in the attempt to defraud Lyman of his rights. This had been only suspected before.

So long as only private interests were interfering with the treaty rights, so long as the government of the unruly republic was not mixed up in the attempt to cheat an American citizen out of his property, the government at Washington might well restrain its hand. But when the government of Paraguay itself, as Ned now believed, was involved in the crooked game, that was an entirely different matter.

Ned believed that a full disclosure of the facts in the case would send warships to Asuncion. He believed that an international complication might breed open war unless he succeeded in getting Lyman away without open conflict with the authorities of the little republic. But how?

Well, the State Department at Washington had trusted him, and he would do his best. The thing to do at that time, it appeared to him, was to await the action of the newcomers. They might be officers of Paraguay, with authority to make arrests in Peru, and they might be only four-flushers. He must temporize until he found out what they proposed to do in the matter.

And, then, he reasoned, if they had Lyman, he had Collins! That was not so bad! Perhaps an exchange of prisoners might be made! This did not seem very likely, but still there was hope. Collins, for all he knew, might be the man who expected to profit by the robbery of the American cattleman.

"So Mr. Lyman is there with you?" Ned called back. "Send him over here. I want to talk with him."

A harsh laugh was the only answer to this.

"You may as well come to terms with me," Collins exclaimed. "You have no chance of winning now. I like your nerve, but you're butting into too strong a game for a lad of your years."

"I shall have to take chances," Ned replied. "What will those men do with Lyman?"

"I don't know!"

"I know!" Jimmie cried. "They'll kill him!"

"I don't think they'll do that," Collins remarked, with a wicked sneer, "but it would clear the atmosphere if he should fall down a mountain!"

"If he does," Ned declared, flushing with anger at the brutality of the remark, "you will also take a tumble. If he is injured in any way, you'll answer to me for it."

"You wait!" warned Collins. "I've handled cases like this before. I can give you cards and spades and beat you out. You'll be getting hungry before long."

"And the Nelson will be ready for flight before long," Ned replied.

During all this conversation Jackson and Jimmie had kept steadily at work sewing the new, strong canvas taken from the tent on the frame of the planes. They could not make a very neat job of it, but they did their work well. Ned had hope of getting out of the valley that very night. Presently the men on the ledge withdrew for a time, and Ned began a closer examination of the Nelson. To his disgust he discovered that the gasoline was very low in the great tanks. Built for long flights, the Nelson's tanks were very large, fitted to carry a supply which would last a couple of days. Ned did not quite understand why the supply should be short after a run of only three or four hundred miles.

"I've got an idea!" Jimmie said, catching the worried look on Ned's face.

"I'm afraid it will take something more than an idea to get the Nelson back to Lima," Ned replied in a low tone, for he did not care to have Collins informed of this new difficulty.

Collins, however, had been watching the movements of the boys closely, and at once surmised what the trouble was. He laughed insultingly as he pointed to the great tanks.

"Empty?" he snarled. "I knew it. Now will you be good!"

"Shut up!" raged Jackson, who was only too anxious to get a pretext for attacking Collins. "We've heard enough from you!"

"'Tie him up!" ordered Ned. "He's likely to make a run for it, and then we should have to shoot him. Tie him up good and tight."

"You'll be sorry if you do!" threatened the captive.

Notwithstanding this threat, the fellow was bound hand and foot. During the process of the work, which was performed none too gently by Jackson, Collins called out to his friends in the other valley, but there was no response. They were probably too busy with their plotting against the boys to hear the shouts.

This business completed, Jimmie beckoned Ned aside.

"Here's my idea," he said. "The Vixen's tanks didn't blow up when she burned and dropped. When it comes night I can go and get the gasoline. The tanks were full, were they not?"

"Yes, chock full. The driver seemed to have fitted her out for a long run. But we may be able to get the stuff before dark. The Vixen did not land in the valley where they are, but in a canyon over to the west. Suppose you go over there and see what the chances are?"

"All right!" replied the boy. "And if the tanks of the Vixen are not full, we'll steal the fuel out of that automobile when it gets dark!"

"That's a good idea, too!" laughed Ned.

Jimmie hastened away, keeping in the gully as long as possible and dodging around friendly cliffs when it came to climbing over the ridge which shut in the valley on the west. The gully cut across the valley, east and west, and was very deep at the east end.

After the disappearance of the boy, Ned removed Collins to the deep end of the cut and placed Jackson there as a guard. He did not want the captive to know what was going on, as a shout to his friends, if they again visited the ledge, might put them in possession of the facts regarding the empty tanks of the Nelson. Then it would be an easy matter for them to prevent the getting of the gasoline from the wrecked Vixen.

Then Ned, hearing no more from the alleged officers, went to work on the planes, and succeeded in getting a long strip sewed in before Jimmie returned with his report.

"The tanks are almost full," the lad said, "and all we've got to do is to unscrew a couple of burrs and lug them right over here. We can't do that until, after dark, for they would shoot at us. Where's Collins?"

Ned pointed to the gully.

"Well," the boy continued, "when I got up on that ridge, I could see the men over in the other valley. They are getting reinforcements from somewhere. Anyway, I saw half a dozen Indians standing around. They've got a fire and are cooking dinner. Then I saw one of the white men pointing, and I'll tell you right now what they're going to do! They're going to station men around this little old crater and keep us in here until we starve, unless we give in."

"They forget that there's an air route," laughed Ned.

"Suppose we get up there on the Nelson!" exclaimed the boy. "And suppose they shoot us off! That wouldn't be funny, would it?"

"We've got to go in the night, then," Ned said. "But before we go I want to have a talk with those fellows."

"Then you'll get a word with Lyman, if you can?"

"That wasn't a bluff, then? They have captured him again?"

"Oh, yes, they've got him with them, all right. Anyway, there's four white men, and only three came in the car. Guess it's Lyman, sure enough!"

"What is he doing?"

"Just walking about. They haven't got him tied up, at least the man I took for Lyman isn't. He looks mad enough to bite nails, though!"

"That is a wonder," Ned said. "It may be that they are trying to make terms with him."

"Of course!" replied the boy.

Along in the afternoon one of the alleged officers appeared on the ledge again. He appeared to be somewhat excited, and Ned suspected that something had gone wrong with the other party. However, he remained quiet, waiting for the other to make his errand known. After a short silence the fellow asked:

"What has become of Collins?"

"He is still here," Ned answered.

"Held against his will?"

"Well, he is still doing some kicking."

"You'll be sorry if you don't let him go."

"How will you trade prisoners?" asked Ned. "Send Lyman down here and we'll send Collins up to you."

"Oh, Lyman doesn't want to leave us," was the reply. "We've arranged a settlement with him."

Ned did not believe this. He knew that the Lyman concession was a valuable one, and that the cattleman would put up a long fight before sacrificing it.

"Send him down here then," Ned answered. "If he is voluntarily staying with you, he can return if he wants to. Send him down!"

"He is afraid you'll try some trick on him," was the reply.

The whole afternoon passed in just such conversation as this--talk which brought no results worth mentioning. Ned did not believe that Lyman was remaining with the newcomers voluntarily. He did not believe that Lyman was suspicious of him.

The men in the other valley frequently visited the ledge and talked with Ned, but the boy saw that they were quietly making arrangements to surround him. Now and then the figure of an Indian appeared on the elevations about the valley, which was the crater of an extinct volcano.

A little study showed Ned that in some long forgotten time the two valleys had formed a great crater, and that this had been cut in two by the elevation of a mass in the center. High up above this dead crater, on the north, stretched the bulk of the mountain, the eruption having taken place on its south slope.

But while Ned talked with the visitors, argued with them, threatened, he kept at work on the planes, and at nightfall had them completed. The canvas had been put on double and sewed on very strongly, so the boy believed that it was as good a machine as ever that he contemplated getting out that night.

"But," argued Jimmie, when the plans were laid, "we can't all go in the Nelson. How are you going to carry Lyman, Jackson and me?"

Jimmie thought for a moment and then added: "But we haven't got Lyman yet. We'll have to come back after him, I take it, after we land Jackson outside."

"But I'm going to get him," Ned replied, "if this machine works all right. I'm going to leave you and Jackson here. What about that?"

"If you can grab Lyman," Jimmie grinned in disbelief, "I'll be willing to stay here as long as the grub lasts!"

"I'm going to get him," Ned replied. "I don't know how, but I've just got to get him back to Asuncion before the 31st."

"And what about Collins?"

"We'll have to let him go. When I get out, let him go, and then you two will have to hide away until I can come back after you."

"All right," replied Jimmie, with a sigh. "Only hurry back! I don't want to starve to death here."

After dark Ned, Jackson and Jimmie lugged the tanks of the wrecked Vixen over to the valley and dumped the gasoline into the Nelson's tanks. Even this accession did not quite fill the latter.

"Wish we could get to the motor car," Jimmie suggested.

"Now," Ned said, "I want you two to kick up an awful rumpus here, directly. Shoot and do all the yelling possible. Let Collins loose and chase him! He deserves it! Then, when the fellows over there run up on the ledge to see what is doing, I'll swoop down in the aeroplane and pick up Lyman--that is, if he is willing to come with me. If he isn't, I can't get him, that's all."

"Then, when we get up in the air, we take to our heels?"

"Exactly. If you don't these fellows will make trouble for you. Hide, but keep making to the east. When I come back after you I'll come in from that way."

"How long will it be?" asked the lad, who did not quite like the notion of being left there with Jackson.

"I can't say," was the reply. "I may leave Lyman in the nearest town, or he may want to go to Asuncion. I may be back by daylight, and I may be gone two days. I hope to be back by daylight."

"All right," Jimmie grunted. "We'll keep off to the east, and when you return you can pick us up before they know what's going on. Here's hoping you get Lyman!"

"I'll get him!" Ned replied, shutting his teeth hard together.

So, all arrangements made, Jimmie crept up on the ledge, about nine o'clock, and looked over into the twin valley.

There was a campfire burning, and Lyman, or the man the boy took for the cattleman, sat close beside it. The others were walking about. Now and then an Indian stepped inside the circle of light cast by the fire, consulted with the others for a moment, and disappeared again.

It was certain that the alleged officers were preparing to advance on the boys, bent on putting the Nelson out of commission for good. The planes had not been repaired any too quickly. When Jimmie reported Ned stepped into the machine.

"When I get within sight of those in that valley," he said, "make all the noise you can. If you can cause them to think you're killing Collins, all the better. Make him yell! I'll go straight up and drop down by that fire before they get over their excitement."

A few strong shoves, a dozen revolutions of the rubber-tired wheels, and the Nelson left the ground, as strong and capable as ever. The motors made little noise, and no signs of discovery came from the other side until the machine was high up. Then a few ineffectual shots were fired at her.

Jimmie and Jackson began their part of the performance promptly by shooting and yelling. They loosened Collins, much to that gentleman's delight, and started him off in the dim light on a run. As Jackson took great delight in landing his bullets close to Collins' feet, the alleged salesman ran for dear life toward the ledge, screaming and calling for help at every jump.

This was exactly what the others wanted, and in a short time they saw a huddle of dark figures on the ledge. In the excitement the firing on the Nelson had ceased.

Jackson and Jimmie were not long in getting out of the valley after that. They whirled around the elevation between the two valleys, sometimes feeling their way in the darkness, climbed over a ledge, and made for the black entrance to the tunnel through which Jackson had entered.

When they were at the mouth of the tunnel they turned and looked back. The Nelson was lifting from the valley where the fire had been seen, whirling up, up into the night sky. They could not determine from where they stood whether there were two or one on the big aeroplane. They had no means of knowing whether Ned had succeeded or failed.

The two watched the dim bulk of the aeroplane as it winged over their heads. Now and then, after it was too late to do her any harm, a few vengeful shots were fired at her. The fact that Ned kept going convinced them that he had picked up Lyman and was on the way out with him.

After the aeroplane had disappeared from sight Jackson and Jimmie hurried on through the dark tunnel, which, as has been said, was merely the dry channel of a stream which had cut its way out of the valley years before. Jimmie proposed that they remain there all night, but Jackson objected to this.

Their pursuers knew that he knew of the tunnel, he explained, in support of his objection, as they were aware that he had entered the valley by that route, so they would naturally look there for them.

This was convincing, of course, and the two hastened on their way, lighted by the little searchlight. For a long time there were no indications of pursuit, then a popping roar came beating down the passage.

"That's the automobile!" Jimmie cried. "Sounds like an express train, eh?"

"It certainly does," Jackson replied, "and it is up to us to get out of the way, somewhere. They won't take extra pains to catch us alive."