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- The Boy Aviators' Treasure Quest - 30/34 -


mouth of the gas receptacle.

To the boys' surprise, when darkness fell the dirigible still forged ahead and no change of her course was observable. They had imagined that she was on her way to join Luther Barr at some nearby meeting-place, where the Brigand would take the treasure on board, but, so far, her navigators showed no intention of alighting.

At ten o'clock Malvoise stepped up to the three adventurers and said:

"It is a rule on board that all lights shall be extinguished at this hour. If you are ready for bed I will show you to your sleeping place."

He led the way to a small cabin fitted with two bunks and lounge. The boys wanted to ask a score of questions, but knew it would be useless, so remained silent.

"I wish you a good night's rest," said Malvoise as he switched on a tiny electric light with the warning that the dynamo would be cut off in ten minutes' time.

As he closed the cabin door behind him there was a sharp click.

The cabin door was fitted with a stout spring lock.

The adventurers were prisoners a thousand feet in the air.

CHAPTER XXIII.

PRISONERS IN DIRE PERIL.

"Locked in, by gosh!" exclaimed Ben Stubbs, as the lock clicked.

"What can they mean to do with us?" wondered Frank.

"So far we've been treated like lords, but I don't like the idea of being penned up in this cabin," said Harry.

Much more speculation was indulged in by the boys, but without their arriving any further at an accurate idea of what was likely to be their ultimate fate at the hands of Luther Barr's men. While they were still talking the light went out, as Malvoise had warned them it would, and they were plunged in total darkness.

Not being heroes of romance, but just healthy boys, the two lads were asleep a few minutes after they threw themselves in their bunks, which were provided with excellent springs, and bed-clothing of good material. As for Ben Stubbs, as he himself said, he could have slept on a whale's back so long as the animal didn't dive.

How long he slept Frank had, of course, no means of estimating, as it was too pitchy black in the cabin for him to see the dial of his watch, but he opened his eyes with a start and soon found out that he had been aroused by what seemed an unusual disturbance aboard the dirigible.

He heard the trampling of feet as the crew ran to and fro, and the shouting of orders in Malvoise's voice. The cabin port was closed and locked on the outside, although the cabin seemed perfectly ventilated by some other aperture; so it was impossible for Frank to distinguish what was said, but the tones of the Frenchman's voice conveyed intense excitement.

The motion of the air-ship, too, seemed strange.

When they had gone to sleep it seemed as if they were sleeping in a room ashore, so perfectly evenly did the ship rush ahead through the night; but now every portion of her frame seemed to be complaining in its own particular voice, and she groaned and strained like a ship in a storm.

Frank aroused Harry, and a few minutes later Ben Stubbs, too, was awakened by the peculiar motion of the ship.

"What's happening?" he demanded, as one of the air sailors ran heavily along the deck overhead.

"I don't know," rejoined Frank; "but it seems to me that we are in a storm of some kind.--Hark!"

As he spoke there was a blue glare of lightning outside, in which the ropes and stays of the ship, seen through the closed port, stood out as in an etching. Simultaneously there came a terrific crash of thunder. They were evidently in a bad storm.

"I wish we were outside instead of cooped up in here," exclaimed Ben. "I like to be out on deck in bad weather and not penned up in a cubby hole."

"Let's try the door," suggested Frank, "we might be able to force the lock."

But the lock was evidently put on to stay, and tug and strain as they would, they could not budge it an inch.

The motion of the ship by this time was so violent as to make them feel quite seasick. She swayed from side to side and now and then took long dips.

"I know what they are doing," exclaimed Frank as the ship executed the latest of these diving maneuvers; "they are setting their aeroplanes low so as to try and find a smooth current of air."

"They've got a fine chance to, if it's blowing as hard as it seems to be," was Harry's comment.

The uproar on deck grew louder.

They could now hear Malvoise's voice, directing the crew to strengthen this stay or lend a hand on that rudder brace.

The ship was evidently passing through a crisis.

It was hard for the boys to remain cooped up in their pen, but deliverance was near at hand.

The door was suddenly flung open, and Malvoise himself stood framed in the square of light from the illuminated saloon behind him.

"You had better come out of there," he said briefly, "we are in a bad storm."

"Are we in danger?" asked Harry.

"I don't know yet. If it doesn't blow any harder we may be able to weather it."

"And if not?"

"If not, we may go to the bottom."

"Is anything wrong with the ship?" was Frank's next question.

"Yes, the engine is not working right. It is not developing enough power to keep us driving against the storm. I am afraid it may strike us broadside on and tear the cabin and decks loose from the gas-bag," replied the Frenchman.

As the boys and Ben gained the deck, the storm struck them in its full fury. It was not cold, they were too far south for that, but the wind fairly drove their breath back down their throats.

"Say, let's grab on to a stay or something," gasped Harry, "I don't want to get blown overboard."

They fairly fought their way to the edge of the navigating deck, which was swaying in a sickening fashion, and clung to one of the stout mainstays of the stressed and storm-driven gas bag above them.

Far below, the sea roared and its wave crests gleamed with phosphorescent light, as the furious wind ripped off their tops and sent them scurrying over the heaving waters.

But, bad as the wind was, a far graver peril menaced the dirigible, and the boys knew it. The lightning was zipping and ripping across the sky in every direction, and, in the event of a bolt striking the craft to which they clung, the boys knew that they might as well be sitting on a keg of exploding dynamite. There would a blinding crash as the gas exploded, and then oblivion.

As they hung on for dear life, Malvoise, his face gleaming white in the glare cast from one of the cabin ports, came up to them.

"Do you think you can take the wheel for a while?" he asked Frank. "What with fear and exhaustion Constantio is almost unable to stand up."

Frank agreed, and, followed by the others he entered the pilot-house. With the exception of the binnacle light above the compass and a small shaded incandescent that shed a glow on the height indicator, the place was as black as a well.

"How is she doing now?" the boys heard Malvoise ask the inventor.

"Ah, senor, poor thing, she is torn and strained in every direction. My heart bleeds for her!" exclaimed the Spaniard.

"Yes--yes," broke in Malvoise impatiently; "but can she last out?"

"I do not know," came the reply of the other. "It is much to ask of any dirigible to last out such a storm. See," he turned the light on to the wind-gauge--it showed a pressure of sixty miles an hour, "it is a wonder to me she has not been torn apart," he declared.

"Well, you'd better go and get some sleep now," said Malvoise abruptly, "one of these boys here will take care of the ship while you nap."

"Very well," said the Spaniard, "do not drive her too hard against the wind, senor, but rather let the wind drive her. Good-night."

He staggered out on to the swaying, plunging deck and vanished. Frank had taken the wheel as the Spaniard relinquished it and he was astonished to find how, in spite of its gears, the wind-stressed rudder tore and tugged at the spokes.


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