Chapter XXI. The Jungle Fire
 

"Well, Tom, I don't seem to see anything of them," remarked Ned that afternoon, as he sat in the bow of the air craft, gazing from time to time through the powerful glasses.

"No, and I can't understand it, either," responded the young inventor, who had come for-ward to relieve his chum. "They didn't have much the start of us, and they'll have to travel very slowly. It isn't as if they could hop on a train; and, even if they did, I could overtake them in a short time. But they have to travel on foot through the jungle, and can't have gone far."

"'Maybe they have bullock carts," suggested Mr. Damon.

'~The trail isn't wide enough for that," declared Tom. "We've come quite a distance now, even if we have been running at low speed, and we haven't seen even a black man on the trail," and he motioned to the rude path below them.

"They may have taken a boat and slipped down that river we crossed a little while ago," suggested Ned.

"That's so!" cried Tom. "Why didn't I think of it? Say! I'm going to turn back."

"Turn back?"

"Yes, and go up and down the stream a way. We have time, for we can easily run at top speed on the return trip. Then, if we don't see anything of them on the water, we'll pick up the trail again. Put her around, Ned, and I'll take the glasses for a while."

The Flyer was soon shooting back over the same trail our friends had covered, and, as Ned set the propellers going at top speed, they were quickly hovering over a broad but shallow river, which cut through the jungle.

"Try it down stream first," suggested Tom, who was peering through the binoculars. "They'd be most likely to go down, as it would be easier."

Along over the stream swept the airship, covering several miles.

"There's a boat!" suddenly exclaimed Mr. Nestor, pointing to a native canoe below them.

"Bless my paddle wheel! So it is!" cried Mr. Damon. "I believe it's them, Tom!"

"No, there are only natives in that craft," answered the young inventor a moment later, as he brought the binoculars into focus. "I wish it was them, though."

A few more miles were covered down stream, and then Tom tried the opposite direction. But all to no purpose. A number of boats were seen, and several rafts, but they had no white men on them.

"Maybe the Englishmen disguised themselves like natives, Tom," suggested Ned.

Our hero shook his head.

"I could see everything in the boats, through these powerful glasses," he replied, "and there was nothing like my camera. "I'd know that a mile off. No, they didn't take to this stream, though they probably crossed it. We'll have to keep on the way we were going. It will soon be night, and we'll have to camp. Then we'll take up the search to-morrow."

It was just getting dusk, and Tom was looking about for a good place to land in the jungle, when Ned, who was standing in the bow, cried:

"I say, Tom, here's a native village just ahead. There's a good place to stop, and we can stay there over night."

"Good!" exclaimed Tom. "And, what's more, we can make some inquiries as to whether or not the Englishmen have passed here. This is great! Maybe we'll come out all right, after all! They can't travel at night--or at least I don't believe they will--and if they have passed this village we can catch them to-morrow. We'll go down."

They were now over the native town, which was in a natural clearing in the jungle. The natives had by this time caught sight of the big airship over them, and were running about in terror. There was not a man, woman or child in sight when the Flyer came down, for the inhabitants had all fled in fright.

"Not much of a chance to make inquiries of these folks," said Mr. Nestor.

"Oh, they'll come back," predicted Tom. "They are naturally curious, and when they see that the thing isn't going to blow up, they'll gather around. I've seen the same thing happen before."

Tom proved a true prophet. In a little while some of the men began straggling back, when they saw our friends walking about the airship, as it rested on the ground. Then came the children, and then the women, until the whole population was gathered about the airship, staring at it wonderingly. Tom made signs of friendship, and was lucky enough to find a native who knew a few French words. Tom was not much of a French scholar, but he could frame a question as to the Englishmen.

"Oui!" exclaimed the native, when he understood. Then he rattled off something, which Tom, after having it repeated, and making signs to the man to make sure he understood, said meant that the Englishmen had passed through the village that morning.

"We're on the right trail!" cried the young inventor. "They're only a day's travel ahead of us. We'll catch them to-morrow, and get my camera back."

The natives soon lost all fear of the airship, and some of the chief men even consented to come aboard. Tom gave them a few trifles for presents, and won their friendship to such an extent that a great feast was hastily gotten up in honor of the travelers. Big fires were lighted, and fowls by the score were roasted.

"Say, I'm glad we struck this place!" exclaimed Ned, as he sat on the ground with the others, eating roast fowl. "This is all to the chicken salad!"

"Things are coming our way at last," remarked Tom. "We'll start the first thing in the morning. I wish I had my camera now. I'd take a picture of this scene. Dad would enjoy it, and so would Mrs. Baggert. Oh, I almost wish I was home again. But if I get my camera I've got a lot more work ahead of me."

"What kind?" asked Ned.

"I don't know. I'm to stop in Paris for the next instructions from Mr. Period. He is keeping in touch with the big happenings of the world, and he may send us to Japan, to get some earthquake pictures."

The night was quiet after the feast, and in the morning Tom and his friends sailed off in their airship, leaving behind the wondering and pleased natives, for our hero handed out more presents, of small value to him, but yet such things as the blacks prized highly.

Once more they were flying over the trail, and they put on more speed now, for they were fairly sure that the men they sought were ahead of them about a day's travel. This meant perhaps twenty miles, and Tom figured that he could cover fifteen in a hurry, and then go over the remaining five slowly, so as not to miss his quarry.

"Say, don't you smell something?" asked Ned a little later, when the airship had been slowed down. "Something like smoke?"

"Humph! I believe I do get an odor of something burning," admitted Tom, sniffing the atmosphere.

"Bless my pocket book!" exclaimed Mr. Damon, "look down there, boys!" He pointed below, and, to the surprise of the lads, and no less of himself, he saw many animals hurrying back along the jungle trail.

There were scores of deer, leaping along, here and there a tawny lion, and one or two tigers. Off to one side a rhinoceros crashed his way through the tangle, and occasionally an elephant was seen.

"That's queer," cried Ned. "And they're not paying any attention to each other, either."

"Something is happening," was Mr. Nestor's opinion. "Those animals are running away from something."

"Maybe it's an elephant drive," spoke Tom. "I think--"

But he did not finish. The smell of smoke suddenly became stronger, and, a moment later, as the airship rose higher, in response to a change in the angle of the deflecting rudder, which Ned shifted, all on board saw a great volume of black smoke rolling toward the sky.

"A jungle fire!" cried Tom. "The jungle is burning! That's why the animals are running back this way."

"We'd better not go on!" shouted Ned, choking a bit, as the smoke rolled nearer.

"No, we've got to turn back!" decided Tom. "Say, this will stop the Englishmen! They can't go on. We'll go back to the village we left, and wait for them. They're trapped!" And then he added soberly: "I hope my camera doesn't get burnt up!"