Chapter VI. Ned is Guilty of Larceny
 

Night came on and no Nelson showed in the sky. Ned wandered restlessly about the rather handsome city, anxious for the aeroplane as well as for the boys who were in the city prison. Collins was always with him, at first, expressing sympathy and suggesting plans for getting the prisoners out on bail. The complainant in the case, it was claimed by the officers, was too badly injured to appear in court.

Ned grew sick of the constant talking of the fellow at last, and went to his room, saying that he was due for a little sleep. But the boy, as may well be imagined, did not sleep. Instead, he sat by his window watching the sky.

Where had Jimmie gone with the machine? This question was always in his mind. Had he met with an accident and was he lying, crushed from a long fall, in some mountain canyon? Had the pursuing aeroplane overtaken him and destroyed or captured the Nelson?

It was not like the little fellow to disappear so utterly. Even supposing he was afraid to return to Lima, he ought to understand how anxious his friends would be and signal them from the upper air. Surely, Ned reasoned, this would be safe, for the hostile machine could not approach the Nelson in speed, and, after giving a reassuring signal, the boy could disappear in the mountains again.

It was dark now in the room where Ned was, and he sat looking out at the sky in the hope of seeing the welcome lights of the aeroplane. Presently, he saw a flicker of light off to the east. It increased in size rapidly, and Ned knew that it was an airship he saw approaching at wonderful speed, but he had no means of knowing whether it was Jimmie on the Nelson or the hostile aviator.

If it was Jimmie, he thought, there would be a signal directly. He waited eagerly, but no signal showed. Presently the airship drifted off to the north, and Ned saw the glint of moonlight on white planes. It was the hostile ship, sure enough, but why had she abandoned pursuit of the Nelson?

Ned resolved to secure a closer view of the airship, but the next question was how to avoid Collins, who was at that moment pacing to and fro in front of the hotel. The alleged salesman would be apt to accost him as soon as he appeared and insist on going with him.

He had had enough of Collins. He had no doubt that the fellow was in the conspiracy against him. It seemed reasonable that he had been warned by wire of the approach of the Boy Scouts, and had hastened to Lima to intercept them. Ned thought over the situation deliberately, and then a daring smile came to his face.

"I wonder if I can?"

He chuckled as he asked himself the question.

"I wonder if I can?"

He paced his room for a moment, and then continued.

"If he goes with me, there will be less suspicion, provided I am right in my estimate of the fellow. We may be even left alone with the aeroplane! Ah, that would be too good to come true!"

The boy watched the sky to the east from the roof as well as from his window, but there were no signs of the aeroplane which Jimmie had taken away.

"The little rascal knows what he is doing!" Ned told himself, "but I wish he would let me know, too! I reckon I'll take a chance on the plan. I'll try anything once, as the Bowery boys say."

Having settled the vexed question in his own mind, Ned went whistling down the broad stairway and came out in the lobby. Just as he had figured, Collins sat where he could keep an eye on the front entrance. When Ned appeared the fellow arose and stepped over to him.

"There is nothing new, I'm afraid," Collins said. "I've just been over to the police station, and nothing can be done tonight."

Ned thought that Collins must have made pretty good time to get over to the police station and back during the short space of time he had been out of sight, but he did not say so.

"Anything new about the aeroplane?" asked Ned. "I saw the white one come back."

"Perhaps she can give us the information we want about your ship, or, perhaps the aviator can," he added with a laugh.

"Why not go and see?" asked Ned, his heart bounding with hope and excitement as he noted how eagerly Collins took the bait. "Can we get a motor-car here? The machine must be quite a distance away."

"It does look that way," Collins replied, with a yawn, "and we may as well take a car, if we can find one. I hope you don't mind my going with you."

"Why, I wouldn't go alone!" Ned replied, speaking with perfect truth, as Collins discovered later on. "You don't know how glad I am to find you up and ready for a little adventure!"

Collins, in turn, told how pleased he was to be of service, and the two found a motor-car and started off, taking a road which ran along a level strip of land which lay between the sand and the mountains. They had proceeded a couple of miles when a motor-car appeared in sight just ahead of them, traveling toward the city.

Collins arose in his seat and waved his hand frantically.

"I believe that's Sherman!" he cried. "Sherman's here for a rival steam pump firm, but I'll be good to him, especially as there is nothing doing in the way of trade. Hey, there, Sherm!" he shouted as the two cars drew nearer. "Pull up and give an account of yourself!"

Sherman was a dark-faced, black-haired, bewhiskered fellow of perhaps forty. He was dressed in a dark business suit and wore glasses. The two men talked shop for a moment, and then Collins asked:

"Where have you been?"

"Just out for a ride," was the reply.

"You saw the airship come down?"

"Of come, but I'm not interested in airships."

"Then you haven't been out there?"

"Hardly. It doesn't interest me--this aviation craze."

"Then you don't know whether the aviator is out there or not?" continued Collins.

"Why, yes, I do know about that," Sherman replied. "I heard this driver of mine talking Spanish with a shoofer we met, and learned from the mix-up in tongues that the aviator has gone to the city, leaving a couple of natives in charge of the machine."

Ned's heart bounded so fiercely that he feared that Collins would hear its quick beats! The aviator was not there. Only two Peruvians, timid chaps at best! Mr. Thomas Q. Collins might receive his reward for his treachery sooner than he imagined, the boy thought!

"Well, so long!" Collins cried. "We'll see you in the city tonight."

The cars parted, each going its separate way, and Ned and Collins were soon within sight of the white aeroplane, which lay in a valley a short distance from the road. The spot where it lay was well irrigated, and fruits and vegetables were growing all around the rope which had been strung about the machine. The aviator had evidently paid a good price for the privilege of landing there.

A short distance away from the site of the machine was a small house, a tiny affair, with plenty of porches and a flat roof. As the two men left the car and advanced toward the machine a man left the porch and walked in their direction.

"Probably the farmer," Collins said. "We may have to pay for the privilege of looking over the machine."

Much to the amazement of the boy, the man who approached from the porch spoke to the two in English.

"What do you want?" he asked.

Ned waited for Collins to make a reply. If Collins really was in the conspiracy against Lyman, he would probably show his hand within the next few minutes. Just as Ned anticipated Collins gave the other a sly signal before he opened his mouth. Ned was not supposed to see this evidence of a common understanding, but his watchful eyes caught not only that but the answering sign of the other.

"We came up to look over the machine," Collins said.

"Well, you keep away from it," the other replied, fixing his eyes keenly on the face of the boy.

"This lad," Collins said, then, motioning toward Ned, "knows something about an aeroplane, and wants to inspect this one."

A sly wink followed the remark. It was getting rather cheap to Ned. The collusion between the two was so evident that their attempts to conceal it appeared very slazy.

"Yes," Ned put in, "I'd like to look the machine over."

"You came in that other aeroplane?" was asked.

Ned nodded, and Collins broke in:

"He's an expert, but he has no machine just at present. A member of his party took his machine away this morning," he added, with a chuckle.

"So Rowan said," the alleged farmer replied.

"Rowan?" repeated Ned. "Is that the name of the aviator who runs this machine?"

"Yes; he is a New York man. Do you know him?"

Ned replied that he had heard of him, knew him to be a splendid operator, but had never met him.

After some further talk Ned and Collins were given permission to look at the machine, which was called the Vixen. Collins expressed his thanks in elaborate language, but Ned went straight to the Vixen, which was then guarded by a Peruvian Indian. He was weary of the cheap pretense of the other.

"This is a peach of a machine," the alleged farmer explained, following Ned as he walked about the great planes. "See here! No cranking at all! You just get into the seat, which will carry two nicely, and push this button. That releases a spring which whirls the propellers until the spark is made, then off you go."

Ned admired the arrangement fully, as he was expected to do. The Nelson was fitted out in the same way, but he did not say so. Presently the Indian left the circle created by the rope and, going into the shelter of the porch, left Collins and Ned with the alleged farmer, who announced that his name was Yerkes.

Ned thought this action on the part of the Indian was in obedience to a signal from Collins, but could not be too sure of it. Then Collins and Yerkes trailed about after Ned as he wandered around the airship. The boy saw the former remove certain bits of wood which blocked the wheels of the Vixen, also he saw Yerkes, testing the gasoline gauge and looking the carburetor over carefully.

"It is all right," the boy thought. "Two hearts with but a single thought, two souls that beat as one--or the reverse anyway, they are thinking of giving me a ride in this old ice wagon! Pretty soon they'll be asking me to get up on the seat and see how easy it is. Then one of them will slip this harness about me--the harness provided for timid riders--and I'll be off in the air--a prisoner!"

Collins and Yerkes tinkered about the aeroplane for some moments, while Ned seemed to be studying the machine. The boy was anxious for the decisive moment to come.

Finally Yerkes, went back to the porch and stood there in conversation with the Indian for a number of minutes.

When he returned Collins stepped forward toward the seat.

Knowing that the time for action had come, Ned sprang into the driver's seat. Collins looked vexed at the movement, but Ned laughed down at him.

"I won't hurt your old machine," the boy said. "Get up here, so we can see how it rides."

Collins obeyed, first giving Yerkes a significant look which was not lost on the watchful boy.

The harness for the visitor's seat was a peculiar one, as Ned had noted with considerable satisfaction. There were leather cuffs for the wrists and a broad leg band which prevented the guest leaving his seat. The cuffs held the hands close together in the lap, the idea being to prevent a timid person from grasping the arm of the driver in a moment of terror.

"Move on over!" Collins called, as he stepped up, "and I'll see if I can take you out of the valley without breaking your neck. Don't say a word to Yerkes about his race with the Nelson," he added, in a whisper. "He got beaten, and doesn't like to talk about it."

Ned noticed but remained where he was, so Collins reluctantly took the other seat. As he did so Yerkes stepped forward, and the Indian stationed himself at the back of the machine, where he could give it a push down the incline which lay before it, and against which the wheels had been blocked.

As soon as Collins was fairly in the seat, Ned gave the harness a quick snap, and the click of metal told him that the cuffs had closed about Collins' wrists, that the broad strap which held him down was in position. Then he pushed the button and the spark caught. The Vixen moved down the incline.

Collins tried to lift his hands, but was unable to do so, so he lifted his voice instead! Yerkes, in the whirr of the machine, doubtless mistook the voice for that of the boy, for he paid no attention to it.

"Help! Help!" roared Collins. "Stop the machine! He's got me tied down! Stop it, you fool! Stop it!"

Yerkes and the Indian looked stolidly on with grins on their faces, and Ned stuck an elbow into Collins' ribs.

"Keep still," he said, "or I'll have to put you out of the speech habit. I've got you just where you expected to get me, and you ought not to kick about the accommodations."

"Yerkes!" yelled Collins. "Why don't you stop the machine? Catch hold of the propellers and yank them off! Put a bullet through this young fiend! Anything to stop the crazy thing. I tell you he's got me tied in!"

Then Yerkes, recognizing the voice, sprang toward the propellers. He made a brisk spring, but was too late. The blades were just about an inch out of his reach. Foiled in this attempt, he drew a revolver and began firing foolish shots at the machine, none of which came near the mark.

In a moment the Vixen was under full speed, the ground dropped away, and the last Ned saw of Yerkes and the Indian they were performing a dance of rage on the growing vegetables below. Straight to the south the machine flew, the motors popping like mad.

The boy saw little crowds in the lighted streets below, looking and pointing up at the aeroplane, and then the city streets faded away into a dull mat, and there were only the silent peaks, the sea, and the deep, dim valleys.

Then Ned turned to his prisoner, who had by this time given over the useless struggle against the harness. Collins' eyes were fixed on the moonlit Pacific, away off to the west, and the boy's eyes followed those of his captive.

A steamer was creeping into the shallow harbor at Calleo, and the dark spot on the sand showed that a crowd was there to greet her. The Vixen was too far away for Ned to see the surf boats getting ready to take off the passengers and freight, but he knew that they were there.

It was now eleven o'clock, and the moon was well up in the sky. The ribs of the Andes lay like silver in its light. Strain his eyes as he might, there was no indication of the Nelson.

"Fine view!" Ned said, presently, giving Collins a nudge in the ribs with his elbow. "How do you like it?"

Thomas Q. Collins was near bursting with rage. He hitched about in his seat, but to no purpose.

"What does this mean?" he finally found words to say, screaming at the top of his voice, for the Vixen was now making good speed.

"I preferred to be the host rather than the guest," the boy said, with a shrug of the shoulders.

"I don't know what you mean by that," Collins replied.

"You meant to capture me tonight?" asked Ned.

"Nothing of the kind!" roared Collins.

"You got Leroy and Mike in jail, and you thought you'd burst up this relief expedition by putting me out of the way," Ned went on. "Now, we'll see who'll be put out of the way."

"What are you here for?" asked Collins.

"You know very well," replied Ned. "But it is too much exertion to talk at this speed. Wait until we land and I'll tell you all about your intentions! Understand? All about your intentions."

"Much you know about them," shrieked Collins.

Ned made no reply to this, for, away off to the southeast, he caught sight of the dipping lights of an airship which might or might not be the Nelson.