Chapter 15. Fired Upon
 

Tom's excited call to the aeronaut, telling of the mishap to Mr. Damon, was answered immediately. Mr. Sharp jumped forward from the motor compartment, and, passing on his way the electric switch, he yanked it out, stopping the machinery, and the great propellers. Then he leaped out on the platform.

But something else happened. Just before the accident to the eccentric man, desiring to give a further test to the planes, the gas had been shut off, making the airship an aeroplane instead of a dirigible balloon. Consequently, as soon as the forward motion ceased the great ship began falling.

"We're sinking! We're sinking!" cried Tom, forgetting for a moment that he was not in his motor-boat.

"Slant your rudder up, and glide downward as slowly as you can!" directed Mr. Sharp. "I'll start the engine again as soon as I rescue him," for it was risky to venture out on the platform with the propeller whirring, as the dangling piece of scarf might whip around the balloonist and toss him off.

Mr. Sharp was soon at Mr. Damon's side. He saw that the man was unconscious, whether from fright or some injury could not then be determined. There was, however, no sign of a wound.

It was no easy task to carry, half dragging it, the heavy body of Mr. Damon off the platform, but the aeronaut was a muscular individual, and long hanging from a trapeze, at great heights, stood him in good stead.

He brought the unconscious man into the cabin, and then, quickly returning to the platform, he detached the piece of scarf from the propeller blade. Next he started the motor, and also turned on the gas tank, so that the airship, in a few minutes, could float in space without motion.

"You needn't steer now, Tom," said the balloonist. "Just give me a hand here."

"Is-is he dead?" inquired the lad, his voice faltering.

"No, his heart's beating. I can't understand what happened."

Mr. Sharp was something of a rough and ready surgeon and doctor, and a small box of medicines had been brought along in case of emergencies. With the Red Cloud now lazily floating in the air, for, once the falling motion had been checked by the engine, the motor had been stopped again, Mr. Sharp set about restoring Mr. Damon to consciousness.

It was not long before the man opened his eyes. The color that had left his cheeks came back, and, after a drink of cold water he was able to sit up.

"Did I fall?" he asked. "Bless my very existence, but did I tumble off the airship?"

"No indeed," replied Tom, "though you came pretty near it. How do you feel? Were you hurt?"

"Oh, I'm all right now-just a trifle dizzy. But I thought sure I was a goner when I fell over the platform railing," and Mr. Damon could not repress a shudder. Mr. Sharp administered some more medicine and his patient was soon able to stand, and move about.

"How did it happen?" inquired the balloonist.

"I hardly know," answered Mr. Damon. "I was out on the platform, looking at the view, and thinking how much better my neuralgia was, with the scarf on. Suddenly the wind whipped loose one end of the scarf, and, before I knew it the cloth had caught on the propeller blade. I was blown, or drawn to one side, tossed against the railing, which I managed to grab, and then I lost my senses. It's a good thing I wasn't whirled around the propeller."

"It's a good thing you weren't tossed down to the earth," commented Tom, shivering as he thought of his friend's narrow escape.

"I became unconscious, partly because the wind was knocked from me as I hit the platform railing," went on Mr. Damon, "and partly from fright, I think. But I'm all right now, and I'm not going out on that platform again with a loose scarf on."

"I wouldn't go out at all again, if I were you, though, of course, I'm used to dizzy heights," spoke Mr. Sharp.

"Oh, I'm not so easily frightened," declared Mr. Damon. "If I'm going to be a balloonist, or an aeroplanist I've got to get used to certain things. I'm all right now," and the plucky man was, for the blow to his side did not amount to much. It was some time, however, before Tom got over the fright his friend had caused him.

They spent that night moving slowly south, and in the morning found they had covered about a hundred miles, not having run the ship to anything like its maximum speed. Breakfast was served above the clouds, for a change, Mr. Damon finding that he could stand the great height with comfort.

It was three days after the start, and the travelers were proceeding slowly along. They were totally unaware, of course, of the sensation which their leaving, conjointly with the bank robbery, had caused, not only in Shopton but in other places.

"We're over a good-sized city," announced Tom, on the noon of the third day. "Suppose we drop down, and leave some message? Dad will be anxious to hear from us."

"Good idea," commented Mr. Sharp. "Down it is. Shift the rudder."

Tom proceeded to do so, and, while Mr. Damon relieved him at the wheel the young inventor prepared a message to his father. It was placed in a weighted envelope, together with a sum of money, and the person picking it up was requested to send the letter as a telegram, retaining some money for his trouble.

As the ship got lower and lower over the city the usual crowds could be seen congregating in the streets, pointing and gazing upward.

"We're creating quite a stir," observed Tom.

"More than usual, it seems," added Mr. Sharp, peering down. "I declare, there seems to be a police parade under way."

"That's right," put in Mr. Damon, for, looking down, a squad of uniformed officers, some on horseback, could be seen hurrying along the main street, trying to keep pace with the airship, which was moving slowly.

"They're looking at us through telescopes," called Tom. "Guess they never saw a balloon down this way."

Nearer and nearer to the city dropped the Red Cloud. Tom was about to let go the weighted envelope, when, from the midst of the police came several puffs of white smoke. It was followed by vicious, zipping sounds about the cabin of the ship, the windows of which were open. Then came the reports of several rifles.

"They're firing at us!" yelled Tom.

"So they are!" cried Mr. Sharp. "They must be crazy! Can't they see that we're not a bird."

"Maybe they take us for a war balloon," suggested Mr. Damon.

Another volley was directed at the airship, and several bullets struck the big aluminum gas holder glancing blows.

"Here! Quit that!" yelled Tom, leaning out of the window. "Are you crazy? You'll damage us!"

"They can't hear you," called Mr. Sharp.

A third volley was fired, and this time several persons other than police officers seemed to be shooting at the airship. Revolvers as well as rifles were being used.

"We're got to get out of this!" shouted Mr. Sharp, as a bullet sang uncomfortably close to his head. "I can't imagine what's gotten into the people. Send her up, Tom!"

The lad quickly shifted the elevation rudder, and the Red Cloud sailed majestically aloft. The young inventor had not dropped his message, concluding that citizens who would fire on travelers of the air for no reason, would not be likely to accommodate them in the matter of sending messages.

The craft mounted rapidly upward, but before it was beyond rifle shot another volley was fired, one bullet sending some splinters flying from the wooden framework.

"Whew! That was a narrow escape!" exclaimed Mr. Sharp. "What in the world can those people be up to, anyhow?"