Chapter IV. A Chase in the Night
 

Following the excited announcement by Mike that an airship was prowling about over the mountains and Leroy's sudden cry of exultation at the prospect of a struggle for supremacy above the clouds, there was for a moment absolute silence in the hotel room where the boys stood. Finally Pedro entered and closed the door.

Ned walked to a window and looked out. The day was fading, and already the feet of the distant mountains were wrapped in purple twilight. The window faced the north, giving a fair view of the city and the Andes as they strung along in that direction, looking like a chain of bald heads lifting from the obscurity of a fog. The airship was not in sight from where he stood.

Pedro saw what he was looking for and stepped to his side, one hand pointing off to the east.

"Out there!" he said.

"When did you first see it?" asked Leroy, not waiting for Ned to conduct the cross-examination.

The Indian talked with Mike for a moment.

The latter did not seem to understand all that was said to him, but presently he turned to Ned.

"He says he saw it only a minute before he came here," he explained. "He says a lot more that I can't understand. I've been here only a month, and I'm not quick at learning new speech."

"Ask him if he knows whether she landed anywhere near the city," Ned directed.

The Indian did not know. The airship was over the mountains when he first saw it, and that was all he could say about it.

"Do you think we've been followed down here?" asked Jimmie.

"Of course!" Leroy broke in. "What else would an airship be here for just at this time? And if she wasn't sneaking about after us, what would she be hanging up there in the sky for? Why doesn't she come down to town, like we did?"

"It may be that the arrival of this airship just at this time is a coincidence," Ned said, "but it seems to me that there is something significant about it. I have felt all along that we were not yet rid of the rascals who tried to make us trouble at San Francisco."

"Some one must want the cattle concession that Lyman has pretty badly," Leroy ventured. "Well, we'll, have to run away from them, I take it!"

"Then how are we going to find out where this Lyman person is?" demanded Jimmie. "No, Sir!" he went on, rubbing his freckled nose in meditation. "We've just naturally got to bust 'em up!"

The proposition was indeed a serious one. If the airship was really there to take note of the activities of the boys on the Nelson, the situation could hardly be improved by following either line of conduct suggested by the boys.

Nothing could be gained by "running away" from the unwelcome visitor. Nothing was to be gained by following the advice to "bust 'em up." A race would only serve to draw the Nelson away from the point of action, away from the place where Lyman was held in captivity. To "bust 'em up" would be to set all the official rings of Paraguay in operation against the lads, place the Boy Scouts under the ban of the law!

"If we only knew just where to find this Lyman person," Jimmie went on, "we might swoop down an' get him an' give the lobsters a run for their money."

"Perhaps," Ned suggested, "we'd better wait for this new navigator of the air to show us where he is."

"I see him doing it!" cried Leroy.

"You bet he will!" Jimmie cut in. "He'll hang around the point of danger! He'll show us where the man is by standing guard over him! What?"

"That's my idea," Ned replied, "still, he may devote his energies to keeping track of us. One can never tell what an enemy will do."

"Well," Leroy said, "I'm going back to the Nelson. There's a chance of the lobster dropping down and trying to cripple her."

"A very good idea," Ned agreed.

Jimmie and Mike hastened away with Leroy, but Pedro remained at the request of Ned. A plan for meeting the emergency was already forming in the active brain of the Boy Scout, and an important detail depended on information which the Indian might be able to give.

Before opening the question, however, Ned, motioning to the Indian to follow, made his way to the flat roof of the hotel building. There he found several men, smoking, chatting, and watching the airship, now almost directly over the city. In Peru many houses are built with especial reference to providing a lounging place on the roof.

It was growing darker, and the lights of the airship shone brightly against the dimming sky. The aviator was now circling around the city, dropping lower at times, then skimming in spirals to a higher point. While Ned stood watching the machine, realizing that the fellow in charge was no novice in aviation, a gentleman whom he had noticed three times before that day observing him closely advanced and stood by his side. He was a well dressed, clean-shaven man of perhaps thirty, with an intelligent face, a bustling manner, and a suit of clothes which Jimmie would have described as "loud enough to lead a circus parade."

"Evidently an American commercial traveler," Ned thought, as the stranger stood by his side a moment without speaking, his eyes fixed on the airship.

"She goes some, eh?" the stranger observed, presently.

"The aviator seems to know his business," Ned admitted.

"You came in an aeroplane yourself, didn't you?" asked the other.

Ned answered in the affirmative.

"Thought so," the other went on. "Hadn't seen you about the city until this afternoon, and some one said you came in an airship. Where from?"

"New York," Ned replied, half amused at the impertinence of the question.

"Good old town!" the other exclaimed. "Hot old town! I like it. There's something always going on there. I'm from New York myself, but I'm selling goods for a Chicago firm--steam pumps! I've got the best steam pump in seven countries! Came here to sell to a mining company. Nothing doing. What's your name? Mine is Thomas Q. Collins."

"Nestor," Ned replied, shortly.

"And you're out for fun?"

"That's the idea." Ned did not think it necessary to enter into details.

"Hope you get all that's coming to you! Say, will you give me a ride in that machine of yours? I went out to see it today. Looks to me like it could knock the spots off anything of the kind in the world. I don't know anything about airships, but I do know about steam pumps, and also about machinery. I know a good piece of work when I see it. That boat of yours is a peach!"

"It isn't my machine," Ned replied, "but if we remain here over tomorrow I'll see about granting your request."

The two talked for a moment longer, and then Collins left the roof. Later, Ned saw him moving through the street below in the direction of the place where the Nelson had been left. The boy hardly knew what to make of Collins. He might be a steam pump salesman, just as he had described himself, and, again, he might be a spy sent out by Lyman's enemies to discover the plans of the Boy Scouts--even to wreck the Nelson if possible. He decided to, if possible, learn something of the fellow before taking him on board the aeroplane.

After a time the strange airship fluttered away to the north and then Ned and Pedro descended to the former's room. Sitting at the north window, the two could see the lights of the aeroplane dropping downward, and they concluded that the aviator was seeking a resting place for the night.

"He's going to bed in Inca Valley," Pedro said, watching the descending bird. "It is a good place to hide the machine."

The words were spoken in pretty good Spanish, and Ned turned quickly and asked:

"You speak Spanish then?"

The question was asked in Spanish, and the Indian's face brightened.

"Yes," he said, "but I never suspected that you knew the language."

"Only a smattering of it," laughed Ned, "but, still, I think you can understand what I say to you. As I want you to do most of the talking, we may get on very well together."

"What do you want to know?" asked Pedro.

"First, I want you, after we have had our talk, to go out into the city and find out, if you can, all about that aeroplane. I want to know if it has ever been seen here before, if the aviator comes to the city after descending, if he is a stranger here--all about him, in fact."

The Indian bowed.

"Then," Ned went on, "I want you to find out whether the machine is well guarded. I also want to know what kind of a machine it is, and where it came from. If you think it advisable I want you to get into conversation with the aviator and see what kind of a chap he is."

Another bow from the Indian, whose face expressed pleasure at the prospective employment. Ned pondered for a moment, as if not quite certain of his ground, and then asked:

"How, well are you acquainted with the country lying between Lima and Asuncion?"

"Oh," was the astonished reply, "but that is a long, long distance--two, three thousand miles."

"Yes, I know, but have you ever been over the Andes?"

"Oh, yes. I am a guide."

Ned pondered a moment.

"How far east and south?" he asked, then.

"To Lake Titicaca."

"That is on the boundary between Peru and Bolivia?"

"Yes."

"And you know that country--the country around the lake?"

"Very well, indeed."

"It is a long way from Asuncion?"

"It is barely a third of the way. You will see on the map."

"Well," Ned said, after a short silence, "I may as well tell you what I want. I want to be directed to a place in the mountains where I can securely hide our aeroplane. It must be a hiding place absolutely out of sight, especially from the sky. Do you understand?"

The Indian nodded, a knowing smile on his dusky face.

"You mean to hide from the other airship?" he asked.

"Yes."

"There are caverns near Lake Titicaca."

"So I understand. Caverns which defy exploration. But, you see, I must have a hiding place from which the airship can be brought out with speed and returned in the same way."

"To dodge out and in? Yes, I comprehend."

The two dwelt over the maps and plans until; Leroy and Jimmie came romping in to report that all was quiet at the machine, and that Mike was to remain on guard until midnight, when Jimmie was to relieve him. Then Pedro went out in the city to listen to such talk of the strange airship as was floating about the streets. He was back in a couple of hours with the information that the airship had not landed in the city, and that it had never been seen there before.

"It seems to me," Ned said after the Indian ceased speaking, "that now is our time. We ought to be a long way from Lima before dawn."

"The other fellow'll see us!" Leroy objected.

"We'll have to chance that," Ned replied. "We needn't have any lights you know, and the motors make very little noise. Get your traps ready, boys!"

It was arranged that Pedro was to remain, under pay, in Lima, storing up such information as he could secure against the day of the return of the Nelson. Mike was to remain with him, of course, as there would be no room on the Nelson for him. The young man when told of the plans, objected strenuously to being left, but was finally consoled by the promise that the aeroplane would be sent back after him when opportunity offered.

It was after midnight when all the arrangements were made and the boys passed out of their rooms into the hotel lobby. At that hour they thought the driver of the other aeroplane would be likely to be sleeping. At the very door of the hotel they came upon Mr. Thomas Q. Collins! He strolled up as Ned stepped into the doorway and extended his hand. Ned took it, gave it a perfunctory grasp, and attempted to paw on.

"If you don't mind," Collins said, with a persuasive mile, "I'll walk with you if you are going out to your aeroplane. I've been to bed and find that I can't sleep."

"All right," Ned replied, thinking that he would rather have the man with him than on his way to report the departure of the Nelson. "We are just going to look the ship over--perhaps take a little spin. Come along."

"I should like very much to go with you, in case you decide to go sailing tonight," Collins said. "Perhaps you may be able to arrange it?"

"I'm afraid not tonight," Ned replied, wondering just what this new acquaintance was up to. "However," he added, "you may as well come along and look over the ship."

Collins seemed glad of even this slight concession on the part of the boy, and walked along briskly. Presently, however, he began to fall back, talking with Jimmie, who was a few paces behind. Then, before very long, the little fellow missed Collins. He had disappeared in a dark alley. Ned worried over this when informed of the fellow's strange and contradictory conduct. The man might have gone to make report to the other aviator! This was not a pleasant reflection.

Mike was found sitting in front of the Nelson, talking with a native who was trying to learn all about an aeroplane from, a boy who knew nothing about it himself! It took only a short time to make ready for flight, then the Nelson was up and away, making little noise as she cut the air, her great planes flashing in the light of the moon.

"This is pretty poor, I guess!" Leroy exclaimed, glancing over the mighty map of sea and plain and mountain. "How fast do you want to go?"

"At full speed," Ned replied.

"I should say it would be full speed!" Jimmie said, half covering his mouth with his hand, to keep his words from being blown back down his throat. "That is," he added, "if you want to make a sneak!"

Ned turned away to the north and saw the white planes of the strange aeroplane gleaming in the moonlight. She seemed to stand still for an instant, and then sped off to the southeast. Ned sighed with apprehension, but Leroy laughed.

"Come along, you!" he cried, looking back. "If you want a race, come on, and I'll give you the run of your life!"