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- The Boy Aviators' Polar Dash - 6/38 -
"What is it," demanded the captain.
"Looks like a big bird," was the response.
Slinging his binoculars round his neck by their strap, Captain Barrington himself clambered into the main shrouds. When he had climbed above the cross-trees he drew out his glasses and gazed in the direction the lookout indicated. The next minute he gave a shout of triumph.
"There's your dirigible, boys," he exclaimed, and even Billy overcame his dislike to clambering into the rigging for a chance to get a look at the airship they hoped to save.
Viewed even through the glasses she seemed a speck, no larger than a shoe button, drifting aimlessly toward the south, but as the Southern Cross drew nearer to her she stood out in more detail. The watchers could then see that she was a large air craft for her type and carried two men, who were running back and forth in apparent panic on her suspended deck. Suddenly one of them swung himself into the rigging and began climbing up the distended sides of the big cigar-shaped gas bag.
"What can he be going to do?" asked Captain Hazzard.
"I think I know," said Frank. "The valve must be stuck and they have decided now that as we are so near they will take a chance and open it and risk a drop into the sea rather than have the over-distended bag blow up."
"Of course. I never thought of that," rejoined the captain, "that's just what they are doing."
"That man is taking a desperate chance," put in Professor Simeon Sandburr, who had climbed up and joined the party and looked with his long legs and big round glasses, like some queer sort of a bird perched in the rigging. "Hydrogen gas is deadly and if he should inhale any of it he would die like a bug in a camphor bottle."
Interest on board the Southern Cross was now intense in the fate of the dirigible. Even the old chief engineer had left his engines and wiping his hands with a bit of waste, stood gazing at the distressed cloud clipper.
"The mon moost be daft," he exclaimed, "any mon that wud go tae sea in sic a craft moost be daft. It's fair temptin' o' providence."
At that instant there was a sharp and sudden collapse of the balloon bag. It seemed to shrivel like a bit of burned paper, and the structure below it fell like a stone into the ocean, carrying with it the man who had remained on it. Of the other, the one who had climbed the bag, not a trace could be seen. Even as the onlookers gazed horror-stricken at the sudden blotting out of the dirigible before their eyes the loud roar of the explosion of its superheated gas reached their ears.
"Every pound of steam you've got, chief," sharply commanded Captain Barrington, almost before the dirigible vanished, "we must save them yet."
The old engineer dived into his engine room and the Southern Cross, with her gauges registering every pound of steam her boilers could carry, rushed through the water as she never had before in all her plodding career.
"Heaven grant we may not be too late," breathed Captain Hazzard, as, followed by the boys, he clambered out of the rigging. "If only they can swim we may save them."
"Or perhaps they have on life-belts," suggested Billy.
"Neither will do them much good," put in a voice at his elbow grimly. It was Professor Sandburr.
"Why?" demanded Frank, "we will be alongside in a few minutes now and if they can only keep up we can save them."
"The peril of drowning is not so imminent as another grave danger they face," spoke the professor.
"Sharks," was the reply, "these waters swarm with them."
A TRAGEDY OF THE SKIES.
It was soon evident that the two men were supporting themselves in the water. Their heads made black dots on the surface beneath which the heavy deck structure of the dirigible had vanished. Through the glasses it could be seen that they were swimming about awaiting the arrival of the vessel which was rushing at her top speed to their aid.
Soon the Southern Cross was alongside and a dozen ropes and life buoys were hastily cast over the side. But even as one of the men grasped a rope's end he gave a scream of terror that long rang in the boys' ears.
At the same instant a huge, dark body shot through the water and then there was a whitish gleam as the monster shark turned on its back with its jaws open displaying a triple row of saw-like teeth.
"Quick, shoot him," cried Captain Hazzard.
But nobody had a rifle or revolver. Frank hastily darted into his cabin for his magazine weapon but when he reappeared there was only a crimson circle on the water to mark where the terrible, man-killing shark had vanished with his prey. Attracted, no doubt, by the mysterious sense that tells these sea tigers where they can snap up a meal, other dark fins now began to cut through the water in all directions.
The second man, almost overcome by the horror of his companion's fate, however, had presence of mind enough to grasp a rope's end. In a few seconds he had been hauled to the vessel's side and several of the crew were preparing to hoist him on board when two of the monsters made a simultaneous rush at him, Frank's revolver cracked at the same instant and the sea tigers, with savage snaps of their jaws, which, however, fell short of their intended prey, rolled over and vanished.
The rescued man when hauled on deck was a pitiable object. But even in his half famished condition and with the great beard that he wore there was something very familiar--strangely so--about him to the boys. Frank was the first to solve the mystery.
"Ben Stubbs," he exclaimed.
"Who's that that called Ben Stubbs," exclaimed the man over whom a dozen sailors and the doctor had been bending.
"It's me," shouted Frank, regardless of grammar, "Frank Chester."
The amazement on the face of the old salt who had accompanied the boys in Africa and the Everglades and shared their perils in the Sargasso Sea, was comical to behold.
"Well, what in the name of the great horn-spoon air you boys doing here," he gasped, for Harry and Billy had now come forward and were warmly shaking his hand.
"Well, answer us first: what are you doing here?" demanded Frank.
"Coming mighty near my finish like my poor mate," was the reply.
"Perhaps your friend had better come in the cabin and have something to eat while he talks," suggested Captain Hazzard to the boys.
All agreed that that would be a good idea and the castaway was escorted to the cabin table on which Hiram Scroggs the Vermonter soon spread a fine meal.
"Wall, first and foremost," began Ben, the meal being dispatched, "I 'spose you want to know how I come to be out here skydoodling around in a dirigible?"
"That's it," cried Billy.
"It's just this way," resumed the old sailor drawing out his aged pipe. "Yer see, my pardner, James Melville,--that's the poor feller that's dead,--and me was trying out his new air-craft when we got blown out ter sea. We'd been goin' fer two days when you picked up the wireless call for help he was sending out. I used ter say that wireless was a fool thing ter have on an air-ship, but I owe my life ter it all right.
"Ter go back a bit, I met Melville soon after we got back from the treasure hunt. He was a friend of my sister's husband and as full of ideas as a bird dog of fleas. But he didn't have no money to carry out his inventions and as I had a pocketful I couldn't exactly figure how to use, I agreed to back him in his wireless dirigible. We tried her out several times ashore and then shipped her to Floridy, meaning to try to fly to Cuba. But day afore yesterday while we was up on a trial flight the wind got up in a hurry and at the same moment something busted on the engine and, before we knew where we was, we was out at sea."
"You must have been scared to death," put in Professor Sandburr who was an interested listener.
"Not at first we wasn't. Poor Melville in fact seemed to think it was a fine chance to test his ship. He managed to tinker up the engine after working all night and part of yesterday on it and as we had plenty to eat and drink on board--for we had stocked the boat up preparatory to flying to Cuba--we didn't worry much.
"Howsomever, early this morning, after we'd had the engine going all night we found we was still in the same position and for a mighty good reason--one of the blades of the propeller had snapped off and there we were,--practically just where we'd been the night before and with no chance doing anything but drift about and wait for help. Melville never lost his nerve though.
"'We'll be all right, Ben,' says he to me, and though I didn't feel near so confident, still I chirped up a little for I had been feeling
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