Chapter XIV. Arrested for Smuggling
 

The Nelson swept out of the air like a bird and landed so close to the fire that Ned felt the warmth of it on his face. The wheels cut the earth at first, under the force of the quick descent, then stopped.

The firelight shone on the white planes, bringing them out strongly against the darkness, and Ned knew that he could not remain there a minute without being discovered by the alleged officers of the little republic he was just then warring against. When he landed the men were out of sight around the ledge, but they of course saw the aeroplane and came running back.

Lyman, or a man Ned believed to be the cattleman whose financial operations had stirred up an international row, stood moodily by the fire when the Nelson dropped down, almost on top of his head. He sprang away, rubbed his eyes as if trying to awake himself from a bad dream, and then stood stock still, watching.

"Lyman?" Ned called.

There was no reply, and Ned spoke the name again.

"Yes, Lyman," the man by the fire answered, then. "What new wrinkle is this?" he added, stepping a little closer to the machine.

"If you're Lyman," Ned replied, hastily, "you can't get in here any too quickly. Those fellows will be here directly, with Thomas Q. Collins in the lead, if my boys do their duty. There will be little chance for either of us then. Jump in!"

"But I've never been on one of those things, and I'm afraid," Lyman said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I'm afraid I'd fall out."

A shot came from the ledge, and Ned reached for the button which would start the motors going.

"You've only a minute to decide," he said. "I've come a long way to find you. If you reject this chance you won't get another."

"Well," Lyman cried, stepping up to the seat, very shaky as to nerves and pale as death, "I may as well die from a fall as from a bullet or a knife. If Collins is coming back with the officers, I'll have to do something."

The instant he was in his seat, Ned threw the leather straps about his legs and wrists and buckled them tight. Lyman shivered with fright.

"I thought so!" he cried, mistaking Ned's motives. "This is only another trick!"

The wheels bumped for an instant over the inequalities of the surface, the machine rocked lightly, then the planes lifted into the air, the propellers running like mad. A few ineffectual shots came from the men who were running down from the ledge. Ned saw Jimmie and Jackson chasing Collins out of the valley, heard their shots, and then, in a few moments, saw them at the mouth of the tunnel.

In five minutes more the Nelson was out of all danger, purring through the darkness like a contented cat. Lyman sat moodily in his harness, saying not a word, but fully convinced that this was only another trick of his enemies. Directly the boy slowed the motors down so as to make conversation possible.

"Well," he said, turning on one of the electric bulbs so as to see the face of his passenger, "what do you think of the Nelson? Peach, isn't she?"

"Where are you taking me?" was the only reply to the question.

"That is for you to say. We are not very far from Sicuani, Peru, and from there you can secure transportation back to Asuncion--if you think it safe to go there, under the circumstances. About a hundred miles to the north is Cuzco. You can go there and prepare for your visit to Asuncion if you care to. Then, over here in Bolivia, is Sucre. It might be well for you to go there. Anyway, it is up to you."

"Who is doing this?" asked Lyman, suspiciously.

"I can't see as that makes any difference to you," Ned replied.

"I was in the hope," Lyman went on, "when you came down upon me so unexpectedly, that my friends had found me. You speak English like a New York man," he went on. "Perhaps you live over there?"

"Yes," was the reply. "I live in New York, when I am home."

"Nice little old rotten government we've got!" almost shouted Lyman. "The people at Washington let any crooked little republic do anything it has a mind to do to a citizen of the United States. They're too busy getting themselves into office and keeping in to pay any attention to their duties. England wouldn't stand for a minute the tricks that have been played on me, not by business rivals, but by the government of Paraguay! England protects her citizens, wherever they are!"

"Well," Ned replied, with a laugh, "you may be right about England, but you are wrong about Uncle Sam. He looks after his own, too; if he didn't I wouldn't be here now. You wouldn't be on earth!"

"Do you mean to say--"

Lyman hesitated, and Ned went on and told him as much of the history of the expedition as he thought it necessary for the cattleman to know.

"And now," he concluded, "Where do you want to go?"

"I want you to go with me, wherever I go," was the reply. "And I think we'd better go straight to Asuncion."

"Do you think that a safe plan?"

"Oh, yes; they won't dare abduct me again."

"Then," Ned added, "we may as well get on the way. Asuncion is somewhere about twelve hundred miles from here, and we've got to make it by daylight."

"What's that?" asked Lyman, hardly believing he had heard aright. "You would better say in two days."

"The Nelson can make it in eight hours," Ned replied, "if we don't drop into any holes in the air or adverse currents."

"Holes in the air!" repeated Lyman.

"Sure," answered Ned. "The atmosphere surrounding the earth is just like the water in the large reservoirs--there are deep places and shallow places, holes you can drop in, and currents like the Gulf Stream current, the Japanese current, which warms the northern states and British Columbia, and the Arctic Humboldt current, which sends a cold stream down the Pacific coast of South America. If we have no difficulties with these rivers of the air, and the wind does not come up too strong, we can make Asuncion by six o'clock in the morning. It is about ten now."

"What sort of an airship have you here?" demanded Lyman, amazed at the thought of running at the rate of two hundred miles an hour or a hundred and fifty, at least.

"She was built for speed and endurance," was the reply. "Now cover your face with this mask, unless you want to have your breath blown out of the back of your head, and we'll get under way."

That was a night ride which neither of the participants ever forgot. The first part of the night was dark. Then a moon shone down from a cloudless sky, showing all the beauties of that magnificent country.

The mountains, the forests, the headwaters of the rivers which help to make the Amazon, were under their feet. Now and then they swept over a point of light which denoted the presence of a small town. Occasionally the cry of frightened wild beasts--the vicious mountain lion, the savage tiger cat, the prowling puma--came up to their ears.

After a short run to the southeast, Ned wheeled about and struck straight off to the east. The wind was growing stronger, and the Nelson was not making as good time as the boy desired.

There was a fierce current about the top of Mt. Sorata, which is something over 21,000 feet in height, and again Ned swung off to the north. Dropping down, then, he swept into the valley of the Beni river, which joins the Madeira river, some distance beyond the Bolivian border.

He knew that at the eastern rim of Bolivia there was a series of high mountain ranges which would protect him from the drifts blowing over from the Atlantic--Serre Geral, Serre Paxecis, Serre Aguapehy--and he reasoned that he could make better speed under the lee of these elevations. So he swept down the valley of the Beni until it joined with the Madeira, crossed a line of hills, and made for the Serre Geral range, something under a hundred miles away.

As the Nelson cleared the valley, however, Lyman gave Ned a punch in the ribs with an elbow and nodded toward the ground. His wrists were fast in the harness so he could not use his hands. Ned looked down and instantly dropped the Nelson a few hundred feet.

Some distance down the Madeira, in the center of the stream, were the lights of a boat which seemed to be anchored there. Ned swept closer and tried his best to make out the outlines of the craft, but he could not do it without descending close to the river, and this he did not care to do.

"It looks like the Black Bear," he thought, as he shot up into the air again, "but of coarse it can't be. Those Boy Scouts are not fools enough to bring her up into this country."

So he came to the protection of the mountains and proceeded south toward Asuncion at a speed which caused Lyman to gasp for breath. Of course he was ignorant of the fact that Frank, Jack, and Harry had started out, during his absence, to explore the headwaters of the Amazon, hoping to come upon the Nelson before returning.

As for the lads on the Black Bear, they did not even know that the Nelson was so close to them that night. It was three nights later that they first saw the aeroplane drifting above them. Asuncion does not at all compare in beauty or in thrift with the other capital cities of South America. The government of the republic is so unstable that business men are loath to make heavy investments there.

For one thing the town is poorly lighted, and when Ned came, in view of the place at five O'clock the few street lamps were already out. People were abroad at that early hour, however, and small crowds soon gathered on the street corners to watch the great airship approach.

What Ned could not see was the intense excitement around the government offices. In ten minutes from the time the airship showed above the city, messengers were out in the streets and officials of the lower rank were headed for their offices. In a few minutes this alarm was communicated to police headquarters and to the military station where the governor's guard was stationed.

If the boy had been able to understand the situation below, if he had known that Asuncion had been communicated with from Lima and also from Sicuani, he would have given the city a wide berth. He saw the gathering of crowds below, of course, but naturally attributed this to curiosity. He had no doubt that the Nelson was the first airship ever seen at Asuncion.

"Where are you going to take me?" asked Lyman, as the machine slowed down and he found himself able to speak.

"To the American consul," was the reply.

Lyman sighed and shook his head.

"I'm afraid he will take little interest in me," he said.

"Doubtless," Ned replied, "he has received instructions from Washington. Anyway, I fail to see how they can molest you now, even if they have the inclination to do so. You just go about your business as usual, and leave this abduction matter to the future. You can gain nothing now by stirring that up. Report to the consul and go on about your business as if nothing had happened."

"That is the only thing there is to do," Lyman responded, with a sigh. "Still, I'm suspicious of those chaps. They'll have some trick ready."

Before long Ned found a level spot not far from the capitol building where he could, drop the Nelson. When he headed for that locality he was followed through the streets below by a shouting, howling mob.

"I can't understand this," he thought, and Lyman was still more suspicious.

At last the Nelson was brought to the surface of the earth and Ned and Lyman stepped out, very willing to stretch their legs after such a long ride. They had been in the air about twice the time set for endurance by noted aviators.

They did not get much of a chance to stretch their legs, however, for they bumped into a squad of soldiers on stepping out of their seats.

"You are under arrest!" a gaily-dressed officer said, flashing his sword out of its scabbard.

"What for?" demanded Ned, speaking in Spanish.

"Smuggling!" was the reply.

Ned laughed heartily. Arrested for smuggling!

"Search us, and search the machine, then," he replied, "and let us go on about our business. We have no time to lose."

"In time! In time!" was the drawling reply. "Such things are not done so quickly here! In three-four days--in a week--in three, four weeks, perhaps. In the meantime you go to the jail."

Ned thought of the swiftly-slipping days, of the peril Jimmie and Jackson were in, of Leroy in prison at Lima, and was about ready to fight. The officer refused to take him to the president, or to the American consul. In a quarter of an hour he was in a cell, alone, wondering what had been done with Lyman, and also wondering what would become of the Nelson.

He knew that the charge of smuggling, of bringing goods into the republic by means of an airship, would be held against him as long as it pleased his accusers to keep him in prison. That would be until the concession expired and, possibly, until the Nelson lay a total wreck in the streets.

He saw no one who could give him any information as to what was going on in the outside until the morning of the 21st, after he had been incarcerated forty-eight hours. Then a turnkey unlocked his door and motioned him out.

"For trial?" Ned asked, hopefully.

"It is the wish of the president," was the reply.

"But what, why, when--"

"You have yet to see," was the impertinent reply. "You have yet to see if you can do these things to our countree!"

And so, mystified and, if the truth must be told, not a little discouraged, Ned was led through the prison corridors, his mind filled wit thoughts of Leroy, Jimmie, the Nelson, an, strangely enough, the Black Bear!