Chapter XVI. Red Fire from the Sky
 

Under the light of the moon the rushing river seemed full of leering, cruel eyes. The bodies of the swimming savages were not visible--only the upturned faces and the threatening eyes, with now and then a hand or the point of a glistening shoulder. There appeared to be thousands of the cannibals; their mass reaching from shore to shore.

Then, while the boys looked, expecting every instant to hear the sound of feet outside the panels, a rocket shot out from the Nelson and a score of parti-colored balls curved and hissed toward the earth.

"Gee!" Jack cried. "He's giving them a fourth-of-July celebration!"

"Hope it scares them off," said Harry.

Looking through the heavy glass panel at the top, they saw a rain of red fire drop down on the swirling river. For a moment the whole upper air, then river and forest, was painted a bloody red by the burning powder.

Cries came from the river, and the mass of floating heads parted and swung swiftly toward the shores; then silence. The aeroplane circled about cautiously and then dropped down lower. Jack opened the panel.

"Hello the boat!" cried a voice from the aviator's seat.

"Hello, Ned!" all three boys called back.

"How do you know it's Ned?" was asked.

"We saw that beautiful face of yours in the red fire," replied Jack. "How are we going to get out of here? They've blockaded the river below, and the falls are above."

"I presume I have dynamite enough to blow up that improvised dam," replied Ned. "Why didn't you do it?"

Before Jack could explain the situation, the Nelson drifted past, and he knew that his voice would not carry to her.

"I'm going to open up now," Harry said, as the Nelson drifted out of range of the glass pane. "I'm pretty near choked in here."

"Nice time we would have had in the Wolf," laughed Jack.

"Anyway," urged Harry, "we should have been in her in a minute if the Nelson hadn't shown up. Say, won't they give us the laugh in New York? Came away off out here alone, and then had to be rescued by Ned!"

Very cautiously the panels giving on the stern were opened. There were no savages in view. The banks of the stream seemed as quiet and harmless as a thicket in Central Park.

"I guess the rocket and the red fire got them!" grinned Frank.

"Yes, but they won't stay scared forever!" Harry put in. "We'd better be getting out of this before they come back to their senses."

"They never had any senses!" claimed Jack.

Looking out from the interior, now guarded only by the panels at the front and sides, the boys saw Ned drop half a dozen sticks of dynamite on the logs and brush which had been floated down on top of a number of canoes. In some places the logs had pushed up until they were high above the surface of the water.

The pressure of the current was continually making the obstruction more compact. The canoes seemed to have been bound firmly together and stretched from shore to shore. At least the moorings were strong, for the logs were heavy and the current pulled heavily at them.

The explosions made great havoc with the barricade, and presently the line was broken and the whole mass swung shoreward or drifted down stream.

Then Ned called out:

"Now drop down stream and I will join you."

"Better look out where you land!" Harry called back.

"I hope I won't get into any such scrape as you did," Ned replied.

"Oh, you're not out of it yet!" laughed Frank. "These woods are full of man-eaters. Look out where you go, and we'll find a place for you to come down."

The anchor of the Black Bear was lifted and the power turned on. In a minute she was going down stream at a thirty-mile gait.

Directly they passed the wrecked barricade, rolling and tumbling in the waters, the canoes either broken or half full of water. The Nelson still led the way down the stream.

"I guess he's never going to stop."

"Wonder if he's going back to New York?"

"Perhaps he's lost control!"

The boys looked and wondered as the aeroplane drifted on to the north and cast. They were miles from the scene of the battle now, but the airship went on.

Presently they saw the purpose of the aviator in making this long run. A little nest of houses flashed out on the river bank, with here and there a light showing, and here the onward course of the Nelson became a circling descent.

In the east there was a faint line of dawn in the sky when the Black Bear was pushed up to a primitive wharf. The aeroplane was still circling in the air.

"He wants us to pick out a spot for him to land on," Jack said. "There's one over by that hill," he added.

When Ned saw the three boys gather at the spot indicated and motion to him to come down he lost no time in doing so. When he stepped out of his seat all three lads were upon him. One would have thought they were determined to tear him in pieces the way they seized his hands, his legs, and pulled at his neck.

"You old fraud!"

"How did you know?"

"You're a nice old chaperon!"

For a moment Ned could not say a word, then he pushed the boys away and sat down on the ground.

"You're a nice bunch!" he said.

"Sure!" said Jack.

"The people back there thought so much of us that they wanted us to remain to dinner!" grinned Harry.

"There ain't no better people!" Frank insisted.

"How did you happen to get out here?" demanded Ned. "Why, you fellows ought to have a chaperon. Those cannibals would have had a good dinner today if the Nelson hadn't come that way."

"Now, don't crow over us!" pleaded Frank. "We know all about it. You've gotten us out of many a scrape, but this is the large event. We take off our hats to you. Now, where's Jimmie and Leroy?"

"I don't know," answered Ned, gravely.

"I guess you are the one who needs a--"

"I guess you are right," Ned replied. "I've been up against the pricks good and plenty since I left you. If I get to New York alive, I'm going to stay there for good."

"Where did you leave Leroy?" asked Frank.

"In jail!"

"Wow!" cried all three boys.

"And Jimmie? I don't see how you happened to lose him."

"Jimmie is lost in the Peruvian mountains," Ned said.

"Well, why don't we go and get him?" asked Harry.

"Yes," laughed Frank. "We might ride in the Black Bear over the storm-tossed summits of the Andes!"

"At least," Ned said, "you boys can help me a lot. I have my hands full. We can all ride the Nelson, I take it. She was built to carry three average-weight men, you know, and I think she ought to manage three boys and one man!"

"Oh, you man!" laughed Jack, poking Ned in the side. "You man who has to come to the three boys for help!"

"Tell us about it," Frank said.

"The quicker we start in on the search for Jimmie the quicker he will be found," Harry insisted.

It was not much of a town where the Nelson had landed. There were a few native houses and a great warehouse, at one end of which was a small office. Such river products as came from up stream were packed there to await transportation down to the Amazon.

By the time the sun was up a score or more natives and a couple of British traders were gathered about the aeroplane and the Black Bear. One of the traders, Mr. Hamlin, invited the boys to his home for breakfast, and left some of his employees on guard at the Nelson and the Black Bear.

During the breakfast Ned recounted his adventures, to which the host listened with the closest attention. Frank then told of the cruise of the Black Bear, adding that they had hoped to reach the very last yard of water flowing down the Andes slope to the east.

"It is wonderful what American Boy Scouts will accomplish!" Mr. Hamlin said, when the tales had been told. "A few years ago no boy of your age would have undertaken such a duty as sent you to Paraguay," he added, addressing Ned, "and no boys would have dared to navigate the Beni river," he continued, smiling at the three bright faces on the other side of the table.

"The Boy Scout training makes for courage and resourcefulness," Ned said. "We have not been caught in many traps. In fact, I think we are now up against the very worst situation we have ever encountered."

"But you haven't yet told us how you got out of jail at Asuncion, only that you got in on a smuggling charge and were released. Who brought about the release?"

"The president of the Republic," was the reply. "He learned of the matter and ordered me brought before him. Well, I had been searched, and the Nelson had been searched, and nothing found, so I was let go. The president also ordered the Nelson returned to me. It had been appropriated by an official who had declared it forfeited. Not a bad chap that president, still, I think he saw Uncle Sam in the background!"

"And about this man Lyman?"

"I was told that he had gone back to his concession. I went out there in the airship, but failed to find him. After we find Jimmie and get Leroy out of the jail at Lima I'm going to find Lyman once more."

"This," Jack said, "is the 23d of August. Now, we saw you last night, the 22d, and the night before, the 21st. Why didn't you come down then?"

"Because I was not certain that it was the Black Bear, and because I wanted to investigate the place where I last saw Jimmie and the man Jackson. I was over the boat longer ago than the night of the 21st, but you did not know it, I guess."

"Well, you came at the right time, when you did come," Jack said. "I only wish you hadn't found us in such a pickle!"

"It doesn't seem to me," Mr. Hamlin suggested, "that the Nelson ought to carry four. You may have to go pretty fast. Now, one of you can remain with me, in welcome, and look after the Black Bear. I have plenty of gasoline, and we can amuse ourselves with trips on the river. Later, you can come back after the boat."

"I think I'd better stay," Harry Stevens said. "I'm not stuck on long rides in the air. Besides, you can do just as well without me. How far is it to the place where you left Jimmie and this man Jackson?"

Ned took out his pocket map and bent over it.

"Here we are," he said, presently, "in the valley of the Madeira, with a range of mountains on each side. Below are the rapids and the falls. You must have had a sweet time traveling up from Fort San Antonio. You passed about three hundred miles of swift rapids and falls. How many times did you have to take the Black Bear to pieces?"

"Not once there," was the reply. "We managed to steam up. But, say, we had a lovely time getting up over one waterfall!"

"Well," Ned went on, "here we are at the big bend of the upper Madeira. We are not far from a thousand miles from the place where I found Lyman. We can get there by nightfall."

"Not for me," Jack said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "We should have to ride continuously to make it in that time, and I don't like to remain in the air that long. We ought to have five rests of an hour each, and get there in the morning."

"Yes," Ned replied, "I'm getting tired of long rides myself. We'll go slower."

After breakfast the boys went to the Black Bear and looked her over. The propeller which had been broken could easily be repaired, they found, so they left that matter to Harry, replenished the tanks of the Nelson with gasoline, and prepared for the long journey back to the mountains of Peru.

"When are you coming back?" asked Harry, as the three mounted the machine.

"In three days," replied Ned. "And we'll bring Jimmie with us."

"If they haven't fed him to the mountain lions before now!" Harry said, with a strange premonition of evil in his heart.

And the Nelson was up and away, and Harry set to work cleaning up the motor boat, hoping to forget in toil how lonely and apprehensive he was.