J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson's Twin Cylinder Racer





CHAPTER XII
Racing an Airship

It was a hot, oppressive day when Bert set out from Ralston. But he had had a restful sleep, and felt in fine trim for anything. He had eaten a hearty breakfast, and this no doubt added to his feeling of buoyancy and satisfaction with life in general. In addition, his mount was acting beautifully, purring along with the deep-throated exhaust that tells its own story of fine adjustments and perfect carburetion.

The country through which he traveled was very flat, and for mile after mile he glided easily along, encountering no obstructions worthy of the name. The road was smooth, and, contrary to the general run of roads in this section, comparatively free from sand and dust. The fresh, invigorating air added to his feeling of exhilaration, and he was tempted to open er up and do a little speeding.

He had about decided to do so, when suddenly he became conscious of hearing some noise not proceeding from his machine.

At first he thought it must be an automobile coming up back of him, but, as he glanced over his shoulder, he could see no sign of one, although the road stretched out for miles without a break.

Instantly his mind grasped the significance of the sound.

It must be an aeroplane, he thought, and, glancing upward, was not much surprised to see one outlined against the clear blue of the sky.

Well, well, thought Bert, this is an unexpected pleasure. I didnt know there was an aeroplane within two hundred miles of here.

The aeroplane, which proved to be of the biplane type, was evidently descending. At first, Bert had stopped to get a good look at it, but then, feeling that he had no time to lose, had remounted and resumed his journey.

But as he went along, he knew that the plane was still descending because of the increasing noise of its exhaust. In the same way he could tell that the machine was overtaking him, but at first the thought of trying to beat it never entered his head. Even in all his varied and exciting adventures he had never had a brush with such an adversary.

In an incredibly short time, however, the aeroplane was directly over his head, and he glanced upward. As he did so, the aviator leaned forward slightly, and waved his gloved hand. Bert waved in reply, and then the airman made a gesture which Bert interpreted, and rightly, as being a challenge.

Needless to say, our hero was not one to decline such an invitation, and accordingly he opened his throttle a little. Instantly his exhaust changed from its deep grumble to a harsh bark, and his machine leaped forward.

In answer to this, the aviator fed more gas to his motor, and his graceful machine soared forward in advance of Bert and the Blue Streak.

Oho! thought Bert, this will never do, and he gave his powerful machine more throttle, at the same time advancing the spark to the limit. That last fraction of an inch of spark sent his machine surging ahead like some wild thing let loose, and he leaned far down to escape the terrific resistance caused by the wind.

The road streamed away behind him, and he had a thrill of exultation as he felt his machine leap forward in response to the slightest touch of the throttle.

His adversary in the air was not to be easily outdistanced, however, and he kept up with Bert, refusing to be shaken off.

Bert felt that now was the time to take the lead, if possible, and accordingly he opened the throttle almost to the limit, although he still held something in reserve.

The powerful motor responded nobly, and the machine skimmed over the sun-baked road at a terrific pace. The bird-man did his best to squeeze a little more speed out of his whirling motor, but was unable to cope with the rushing, roaring little speck down below him. At last he was forced to a realization of this, and abruptly cut down his speed.

Bert continued his headlong flight for a short time, but finding that the aeroplane did not pass him, concluded that it must have fallen behind. Accordingly, he slackened his own speed, but very gradually, for he was too wise to risk disaster by slowing down too suddenly.

Soon his speed had abated sufficiently to allow the use of the brakes, and he brought his machine to a standstill. Lifting it onto its stand, he pushed his goggles up on his forehead, and looked around for his late rival.

He made out the aeroplane at no great distance, and could see that it was making preparations to land. When the aviator reached a point almost over Berts head, he shut off his engine entirely, and, describing a great spiral, landed gently on the ground not a hundred yards from where Bert and the Blue Streak were standing.

Bert immediately ran toward him, and the aviator stepped stiffly from his seat and held out his hand.

Youve got a mighty fast machine there, comrade, he said, with a grin, as Bert shook hands with him. I thought my plane was pretty good, but I guess your motor bike is better.

Well, it isnt so bad, perhaps, replied Bert, unable no matter how hard he tried, to keep a little note of pride out of his voice. I manage to get a little action out of it once in a while.

I should say you did, agreed his late rival, but what are you doing way out here a thousand miles from nowhere, more or less?

I might ask the same question of you, replied Bert, with a smile, but as you beat me to it, Ill answer yours first.

Bert then proceeded to outline briefly the contest in which he was engaged, but, before he had gone far, his companion interrupted him.

Oh, I know all about that! he exclaimed. And so youre one of the chaps in the transcontinental race, are you? Well, you havent got so much further to go, considering the distance youve covered already.

No, I guess the worst of it is over, agreed Bert, although Ive been told that there are some very bad roads ahead of me.

Youre right, there are, replied the aviator, and thats where I have an advantage over you. I dont have to worry over road conditions.

Bert saw that he was a little chagrined over his defeat, and so forebore to argue the merits of motorcycle versus airship.

Just the same, he thought to himself, Im a whole lot more likely to get where I want to go than he is.

Then he and his new-found companion fell into a discussion regarding various types of motors, and inspected each others machines with interest. By the time this was over it was high noon, and Bert proposed that they eat lunch together.

The aviator agreed heartily to this, and accordingly they unpacked their lunches and, sitting in the shade of one of the aeroplane wings, made a hearty meal.

When the last crumb had been disposed of, they shook hands with expressions of mutual regard, and the aviator was very cordial in wishing Bert all kinds of success in the contest. Then they said good-bye, and resumed their respective journeys. Bert watched the airship ascend in great spirals, until it was a mere speck in the distance, winging rapidly eastward.

Before starting, Bert looked over his machine carefully, in order to assure himself that nothing had been loosened by the vibration caused by the high speed. Everything seemed in perfect shape, and in less time than it takes to tell he was eating up space in a fashion that promised to land him speedily at his destination.

But before he had gone many miles, he found the road, which up to now had been exceptionally good, becoming more and more sandy, and he was forced to go slowly and pick his way very carefully. As the sand grew deeper his machine evinced a very decided tendency to skid, and he was forced to exert all his strength to keep the front wheel pointed straight ahead.

Soon he shifted to low gear, and crawled forward at a pace little faster than a brisk walk. He now had reason, as indeed he had a score of times so far, to bless the foresight that had led him to purchase a two-speed machine. Without this, he felt that the accomplishment of his task would be well-nigh hopeless.

The heat became more and more oppressive, and the alkali dust on his face smarted and blistered. At intervals he would dismount, take a drink from his canteen, and give his motor a chance to cool off.

Then he would start on again, resolved to reach the next town before nightfall. What with the many interruptions and the slow pace, however, darkness overtook him while yet he was more than ten miles from his destination.

Dismounting, he lighted his lamp, and once more took up the forward flight. The air, from being excessively hot, now became quite the opposite, and he felt chilled to the bone. He kept doggedly on, nevertheless, and at last his perseverance was rewarded by his catching a glimpse of the lights of the town for which he was bound. At the same time the road became much better, and he covered the intervening mile or two at good speed.

The town was not a large one, but it could afford a square meal and a good bed, and that was all that Bert asked for. He had a hard time to tear himself away from the other guests, who were very much interested in his adventures, and plied him with innumerable questions.

At last he managed to say good-night, and fifteen minutes afterward was sunk in the deep, dreamless sleep of utter but healthy exhaustion.

CHAPTER XIII
An Unseen Listener

Bert was lost. There was no use blinking the fact. For two hours past this feeling had been growing stronger, and now it had deepened into a conviction.

It was an unusual and disconcerting experience for him. His sense of location was very keen and acute, and, even without a compass, he had been able almost instinctively to distinguish the cardinal points. But just now he was deprived of the help of that trusty counselor. He had been compelled to dismount, a little while since, to make some trifling adjustment. Some time later, when the sun had disappeared under a cloud, he felt in the pocket where he usually carried his compass, and was dismayed to find it empty. He must have lost it in bending over the machine. He could replace it when he reached the next large town, but just at present he missed it sorely. For an hour now, the sun had been invisible, and although he felt confident he was traveling due West, he would have given a good deal for absolute assurance of that fact.

If he had been following some broad highway, he would not so much have cared, as he would have been sure before long to reach some settlement where he could again get his bearings. But there had been a number of trails, none of them well-defined, and he had chosen one that grew fainter and fainter as he progressed until it had faded away into the mass of the prairie. In bright sunlight, he might have still been able to trace it, but, in the dun haze and gathering dusk, it was no longer visible.

Although the country was mostly a level plain, it was interspersed here and there with bits of woodland and rocky buttes, rising in places to a height of two hundred feet. One of these Bert descried in the distance, and, putting on more power, he neared it rapidly. If he had to spend the night in the open, which seemed very probable now, he wanted to have the cheer and comfort of a fire, and there was no material for that in the treeless plain. At the edge of the wood he could get boughs and branches. By the aid of the spirit lamp that he carried in his kit, he could make a pot of coffee to supplement the sandwiches he had with him.

By the time he had reached the woods it had grown wholly dark. He jumped from the saddle, leaned the Blue Streak against a tree, and commenced to gather twigs and branches. He soon had enough for his purpose, and was just about to apply a match, when he caught the twinkle of a light, farther up the wooded slope. He looked closely and could see the outlines of a cabin from which the light was streaming.

The discovery was both a surprise and a delight. Here was human companionship, and an opportunity to know just where he was and how he could best reach the nearest town. He thought it was probably the hut of some sheepherder or cattleman, and he had no doubt of a warm welcome. Apart from the hospitality that is proverbial on the Western plains, the occupant of that lonely cabin would be just as glad as himself to have a companion for the night. He thrust his matchbox back in its waterproof pouch, and, taking his machine by the handlebars, began to trundle it up the slope.

His first impulse was to blow the horn of his motorcycle, as a cheery announcement that a stranger was coming. But as he reached out his hand, some unseen power seemed to hold him back. There seemed to be no reason for the caution, but that subtle sixth sense, that experience had taught Bert to rely upon, asserted itself. On such occasions he had learned not to argue, but to obey. He did so now, and, instead of going directly to the cabin as he had planned at first, made a wide circle and came up behind. He left the motorcycle fifty feet away, and then with infinite care drew near the cabin.

It was a rude structure of logs, and mud had been used to close up the chinks. There was no window on that side, but in several places the dried mud had fallen away, and the light shone through the crevices. Bert glued his eye to the largest of these openings and looked in.

A smoky lamp stood on a rough pine table, before which a man was seated on a nail keg. His face was partly turned away, and, at the moment Bert saw him, he was applying his lips to a half-filled whiskey bottle. He took an enormous dram and then slammed the bottle down on the table and drew his sleeve across his mouth.

Around his waist was a cartridge belt, and two ugly-looking revolvers peeped from his holsters. A bowie knife lay on the table beside the lamp. The outlook was not reassuring, and Bert blessed the caution that had impelled him to hasten slowly in approaching the cabin.

He blessed it again when the man with an oath and a snarl picked up a handbill that had dropped on the floor. In doing so, he exposed his full face to view, and Bert thought that he had seldom seen one so wholly villainous.

The ferret-like eyes, set close together, as they looked out from beneath bushy brows, glinted with ferocity. Although comparatively young, dissipation and reckless living had stamped their impress on every feature. His outthrust jaw bespoke a bulldog courage and determination. Brute was written largely all over him. An ugly scar across his temple told of the zip of a bullet or the crease of a knife. It was the face of a desperado who would stop at nothing, however murderous or cruel, to gain his ends.

As the light fell upon the paper, Bert saw that it was headed by the word REWARD in staring capitals. Then came a picture that corresponded closely to the face of the man who was reading. Large print followed, of which Bert could see enough to grasp the meaning. It was an offer of five thousand dollars reward for the capture, alive or dead, of Billy the Kid, who had held up a stage at Valley Gulch two weeks before, and, after killing the driver and one of the passengers who had resisted, had made his escape with the contents of the express companys pouch.

Billy the Kid! The newspapers had been full of the robbery at the time it was committed, and columns had been published narrating his exploits. He was wanted for thefts and murders covering a series of years. Posses were out for him in all directions, but he seemed to bear a charmed life and had successfully evaded capture. An almost superstitious fear attached to his name, and he was cited as an illustrious example of the Devil taking care of his own.

Dead or alive, muttered the outlaw with an ugly sneer. It will have to be dead, then. Theyll never get me alive.

Bert was in a ticklish situation. The slightest move on his part might betray his presence to this sullen bandit, to whom human life was nothing. He slipped his hand behind him and was comforted by the feel of his revolver. It was a Colt .45, fully loaded, and he knew how to use it. In that fight with the pirates off the Chinese coast it had done good service. He knew that, at need, he could rely upon it now. He took it from his hip pocket and put it in his breast, with the handle protruding so that he could grasp it instantly.

Just then the gallop of horses smote upon his ears. The outlaw heard it, too, and jumped to his feet. He blew out the light and snatched up his weapons. The hoof beats drew nearer and a halloo rang out that was evidently a preconcerted signal. With an oath of relief the desperado relighted the lamp and went to the door.

Its time you came, he ripped out savagely. What kept you so long?

Couldnt help it, Cap, protested a man who entered the cabin, closely followed by four others. Manuel had to hang around the telegraph office till the message came from Red Pete. The minute it came, we beat it lickety split and almost killed our hosses getting here.

The leader snatched the held out telegram and read it eagerly while the five men, of the same desperate type as their captain, stood around ready to jump at his bidding. It was clear that they feared and cringed to him. His brute force and superior cunning combined with his evil reputation held them in complete subjection.

The telegram was brief and seemingly innocent:

Mary leaves at ten. Meet her with carriage. Pleasant visit.

He drew from his pocket a scrap of paper, evidently containing a key to the message. He compared it with the telegram, and a light of unholy glee came into his eyes.

Its all right, boys, he said, his fierce demeanor softening somewhat. The Overland Limited will be at the water tank near Dorsey at three oclock. Therell be forty thousand in the express messengers safe. Its up to us to make a rich haul and a quick getaway. Now listen to me, and with the swift decision that marks the born leader and that went far to explain his ascendancy over his men, he sketched out the plan of the coming robbery.

You, Mike and Manuel, will attend to the engineer and fireman. First get their hands up over their heads. Then keep them covered and make them uncouple the engine and express car from the rest of the train and run up the track a half a mile or so. Ill see to the express messenger myself. Hell open that safe or Ill blow his head off and then break open the safe with dynamite. Joe and Bob and Ed will stay by the train and keep shooting off their guns, to cow the passengers and trainmen while we get in our work. We wont have time to go through the cars, as it will be too near daylight, and well have to do some hard riding while its dark. I hate to let the passengers coin and jewelry go, but well get enough from the express car to make up for that. Let your horses rest till twelve and then well saddle up and get to the water tank by two. Now you fellows know what youve got to do, and God help the man who makes a bad break. Hell have to reckon with me, and he laid his hand significantly on the handle of his knife.

There was an uneasy grin on the part of the men, and then they fell to discussing the details of the plan, while the bottle passed freely from hand to hand.

Bert, who had listened breathlessly to the daring plot, was doing some rapid thinking. He had not the slightest idea where the water tank was located. It might be east, west, north or south, as far as he knew. But what he did know was that it behooved him to get away from that dangerous locality at the earliest possible moment. His life would not have been worth much if he had been discovered before they had discussed the robbery. Now that he was in possession of the details, it would be worth absolutely nothing. A killing more or less made no difference to these abandoned outlaws, and they would have shot him with as little concern as they would a prairie dog.

Then, too, the alarm ought to be given at once. By riding into the night, he would have a chance of reaching some town and getting into touch with the railroad authorities, by wire or phone. Or he might run across some one familiar with the country who could guide him. Anything was better than inaction. Theft and murder were in the air, and every passing moment made them more probable. He might break his neck, collide with a rock or a tree, ride over a precipice in the dark. But he had to take a chance. Danger had never yet turned him from the path of duty. It should not daunt him now.





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