Chapter XX. After the Englishmen
 

"The camera gone!" gasped Ned.

"Did they chloroform us?" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Bless my--" but for one of the few times in his life, he did not know what to bless.

"Get all the fresh air you can," hastily advised Mr. Nestor. "Koku, open all the doors and windows," for, though it was hot during the day in the jungle, the nights were cool, and the airship was generally closed up. With the inrush of the fresh air every one soon felt better.

"Is anything else gone?" asked Ned, as he followed Tom into the camera room.

"Yes, several rolls of unexposed films. Oh, if only they haven't got too much of a start! I'll get it away from them!" declared Tom with energy.

"From who? Who took it?" asked Ned.

"Those Englishmen, of course! Who else? I believe they are in the pay of Turbot and Eckert. Their taking pictures was only a bluff! They got on my trail and stuck to it. The delays we had, gave them a chance to catch up to us. They came over to the airship, to pretend to borrow films, just to get a look at the place, and size it up, so they could chloroform us, and get the camera."

"I believe you're right," declared Mr. Nestor. "We must get after those scoundrels as quickly as possible!"

"Bless my shoulder braces!" cried Mr. Damon. "How do you imagine they worked that trick on us?"

"Easily enough," was Mr. Nestor's opinion. "We were all dead tired last night, and slept like tops. They watched their chance, sneaked up, and got in. After that it was no hard matter to chloroform each one of us in turn, and they had the ship to themselves. They looked around, found the camera, and made off with it."

"Well, I'm going to get right after them!" cried Tom. "Ned, start the motor. I'll steer for a while."

"Hold on! Wait a minute," suggested Mr. Nestor. "I wouldn't go off in the ship just yet,~ Tom."

"Why not?"

"Because you don't know which way to go. We must find out which trail the Englishmen took. They have African porters with them, and those porters doubtless know some of the blacks around here. We must inquire of the natives which way the porters went, in carrying the goods of our rivals, for those Englishmen would not abandon camp without taking their baggage with them."

"That's so," admitted the young inventor. "That will be the best plan. Once I find which way they have gone I can easily overtake them in the airship. And when I find 'em--" Tom paused significantly.

"Me help you fix 'em!" cried Koku, clenching his big fist.

"They will probably figure it out that you will take after them," said Mr. Nestor, "but they may not count on you doing it in the Flyer, and so they may not try to hide. It isn't going to be an easy matter to pick a small party out of the jungle though, Tom."

"Well, I've done more difficult things in my airships," spoke our hero. "I'll fly low, and use the glass. I guess we can pick out their crowd of porters, though they won't have many. Oh, my camera! I hope they won't damage it."

"They won't," was Ned's opinion. "It's too valuable. They want it to take pictures with, themselves."

"Maybe. I hope they don't open it, and see how it's made. And I'm glad I thought to hide the picture films I've taken so far. They didn't get those away from us, only some of the blank. ones," and Tom looked again in a secret closet. where he kept the battle-films, and the others, in the dark, to prevent them from being light-struck, by any possible chance.

"Well, if we're going to make some inquiries, let's do it," suggested Mr. Nestor. "I think I see some of the Africans over there. They have made a temporary camp, it seems, to attend to some of their wounded."

"Do you think we can make them understand what we want?" asked Ned. "I don't believe they speak English."

"Oh these blacks have been trading with white men," said Tom, "for they have 'trader's' guns, built to look at, and not to shoot very well. I fancy we can make ourselves understood. If not, we can use signs."

Leaving Koku and Mr. Damon to guard the airship, Tom, Ned and Mr. Nestor went to the African camp. There was a large party of men there, and they seemed friendly enough. Probably winning the battle the day before had put them in good humor, even though many of them were hurt.

To Tom's delight he found one native who could speak a little English, and of him they made inquiries as to what direction the Englishmen had taken. The black talked for a while among his fellows, and then reported to our friends that, late in the night, one of the porters, hired by Montgomery and Kenneth, had come to camp to bid a brother good-bye. This porter had said that his masters were in a hurry to get away, and had started west.

"That's it!" cried Mr. Nestor. "They're going to get somewhere so they can make their way to the coast. They want to get out of Africa as fast as they can."

"And I'm going to get after 'em as fast as I can!" cried Tom grimly. "Come on!"

They hurried back to the airship, finding Koku and Mr. Damon peacefully engaged in talk, no one having disturbed them.

"Start the motor, Ned!" called his chum. "We'll see what luck we have!"

Up into the air went the Flyer, her great propellers revolving rapidly. Over the jungle she shot, and then, when he found that everything was working well, and that the cleaned gas generator was operating as good as when it was new, the young inventor slowed up, and brought the craft down to a lower level.

"For we don't want to run past these fellows, or shoot over their heads in our hurry," Tom explained. "Ned, get out the binoculars. They're easier to handle than the telescope. Then go up forward, and keep a sharp lookout. There is something like a jungle trail below us, and it looks to be the only one around here. They probably took that." Soon after leaving the place where they had camped after the battle, Tom had seen a rude path through the forest, and had followed that lead.

On sped the Flyer, after the two Englishmen, while Tom thought regretfully of his stolen camera.