Chapter XXII. A Dangerous Commission
 

"Look at that smoke!" yelled Ned, as he sent the airship about in a great circle on the backward trail.

"And there's plenty of blaze, too," added Tom. "See the flames eating away! This stuff is as dry as tinder for there hasn't been any rain for months."

"Much hot!" was the comment of the giant, when he felt the warm wind of the fire.

"Bless my fountain pen!" gasped Mr. Damon, as he looked down into the jungle. "See all those animals!"

The trail was now thick with deer, and many small beasts, the names of which Tom did not know. On either side could be heard larger brutes, crashing their way forward to escape the fire behind them.

"Oh, if you only had your camera now!" cried Ned. "You could get a wonderful picture, Tom."

"What's the use of wishing for it. Those Englishmen have it, and--"

"Maybe they're using it!" interrupted Ned. "No, I don't think they would know how to work it. Do you see anything of them, Ned?"

"Not a sight. But they'll surely have to come back, just as you said, unless they got ahead of the fire. They can't go on, and it would be madness to get off the trail in a jungle like this."

"I don't believe they could have gotten ahead of the fire," spoke Tom. "They couldn't travel fast enough for that, and see how broad the blaze is."

They were now higher up, well out of the heat and smoke of the conflagration, and they could see that it extended for many miles along the trail, and for a mile or so on either side of it.

"We're far enough in advance, now, to go down a bit, I guess," said Tom, a little later. "I want to get a good view of the path, and I can't do that from up here. I have an idea that--"

Tom did not finish, for as the airship approached nearer the ground, he caught up a pair of binoculars, and focussed them on something on the trail below.

"What is it?" cried Ned, startled by something in his chum's manner.

"It's them! The Englishmen!" cried Tom. "See, they are racing back along the trail. Their porters have deserted them. But they have my camera! I can see it! I'm going down, and get it! Ned, stand by the wheel, and make a quick landing. Then we'll go up again!"

Tom handed the glasses to his chum, and Ned quickly verified the young inventor's statement. There were the two rascally Englishmen. The fire was still some distance in the rear, but was coming on rapidly. There were no animals to be seen, for they had probably gone off on a side trail, or had slunk deeper into the jungle. Above the distant roar of the blaze sounded the throb of the airship's motor. The Englishmen heard it, and looked up. Then, suddenly, they motioned to Tom to descend.

"That's what I'm going to do," he said aloud, but of course they could not hear him.

"They're waiting for us!" cried Ned. "I wonder why?" for the rascals had come to a halt, setting down the packs they carried on the trail. One of the things they had was undoubtedly Tom's camera.

"They probably want us to save their lives," said Tom. "They know they can't out-run this fire. They've given up! We have them now!"

"Are you going to save them?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Of course. I wouldn't let my worst enemy run the chances of danger in that terrible blaze. I'd save them even if they had smashed my camera. I'll go down, and get them, and take them back to the native village, but that's as far as I will carry them. They'll have to get away as best they can, after that."

It was the work of but a few minutes to lower the airship to the trail. Fortunately it widened a bit at this point, or Tom could never have gotten his craft down through the trees.

"Hand up that camera!" ordered our hero curtly, when he had stopped near the Englishmen.

"Yes, my dear chap," spoke the tall Britisher, "but will you oblige us, by taking us--"

"Hand up the camera first!" sharply ordered Tom again.

They passed it to him.

"I know we treated you beastly mean," went on Kenneth, "but, my dear chap--"

"Get aboard," was all Tom said, and when the rascals, with fearful glances back into the burning jungle, did so, our hero sent his craft high into the air again.

"Where are you taking us, my dear chap?" asked the tall rascal.

"Don't 'dear chap' me!" retorted Tom. "I don't want to talk to you. I'm going to drop you at the native village."

"But that will burn!" cried the Englishman.

"The wind is changing," was our hero's answer. "The fire won't get to the village. You'll be safe. Have you damaged my camera?" he asked as he began to examine it, while Ned managed the ship.

"No, my dear chap. You mustn't think too hard of us. We were both down on our luck, and a chap offered us a big sum to get on your trail, and secure the camera. He said you had filched it from him, and that he had a right to it. Understand, we wouldn't have taken it had we known--"

"Don't talk to me!" interrupted Tom, as he saw that his apparatus had not been damaged. "The man who hired you was a rascal--that's all I'll say. Put on a little more speed, Ned. I want to get rid of these 'dear chaps' and take some pictures of the jungle fire."

As Tom had said, the wind had changed, and was blowing the flames away off to one side, so that the native village would be in no danger. It was soon reached, and the Africans were surprised to see Tom's airship back again. But he did not stay long, descending only to let the Englishmen alight. They pleaded to be taken to the coast, making all sorts of promises, and stating that, had they known that Turbot and Eckert (for whom they admitted they had acted) were not telling the truth, they never would have taken Tom's camera.

"Don't leave us here!" they pleaded.

"I wouldn't have you on board my airship another minute for a fortune!" declared Tom, as he signalled to Ned to start the motor. Then the Flyer ascended on high, leaving the plotters and started back for the fire, of which Tom got a series of fine moving pictures.

A week later our friends were in Paris, having made a quick trip, on which little of incident occurred, though Tom managed to get quite a number of good views on the way.

He found a message awaiting him, from Mr. Period.

"Well, where to now?" asked Ned, as his chum read the cablegram.

"Great Scott!" cried our hero. "Talk about hair-raising jobs, this certainly is the limit!"

"Why, what's the matter?"

"I've got to get some moving pictures of a volcano in action," was the answer. "Say, if I'd known what sort of things 'Spotty' wanted, I'd never have consented to take this trip. A volcano in action, and maybe an earthquake on the side! This is certainly going some!"