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- The Boy Aviators in Africa - 30/35 -
In a trembling voice Billy read the words inscribed on the first page of the yellowed manuscript.
"To my dear wife Mary this volume is dedicated by her affectionate husband the Author."
"I never thought when I wrote those words I should die like this," exclaimed the dying man, "but it was to be. I always hoped that some day I would escape; but now that I have won freedom, rest seems to mean more to me than all else beside."
The tears welled into the eyes of both boys as with a resigned sigh George Desmond composed himself as if to sleep.
It was about five minutes later, and Billy still held the old man's hand, when the long-lost explorer raised himself on his elbow and shading his eyes with his trembling hand gazed in front of him as if he saw a vision.
"Mary--" he cried in a loud voice and fell back dead.
And so died George Desmond, the famous African traveler, almost within sight of the civilization to which he had so long dreamed of returning.
The shocked and grieved boys had hardly recovered their composure after this tragic termination of a brave man's life when Lathrop, who had been gazing despairingly about him gave a great shout.
The next minute it was echoed by Billy.
Half mad with joy the boys embraced each other and shook hands till it seemed they would fall off, and performed a dozen mad antics.
For, winging its way steadily toward them, though still at a great distance, was an aeroplane that they had no difficulty in recognizing at once as the Golden Eagle II.
There is no need to detail the scene that ensued when, fifteen minutes later, the great air-craft settled down on the river bank and the ravenous boys--who had long since exhausted the provisions in the boat--had been fed, and plied with questions till they had to stop eating to talk and stop talking to eat, at short intervals.
To the great joy of old Sikaso, who regarded it as a personal vindication of his powers, every detail of the trip through the subterranean river and the subsequent peril into which they had fallen was substantiated by Billy and Lathrop as having occurred exactly as it did in the smoke pictures. But there was a note of sadness amid all their joy in the death of the old explorer. On the river bank they dug a grave and marked it with a pile of rocks and there the remains of George Desmond rest for all time in the country to whose exploration he gave his life.
The Golden Eagle II had to make two trips between the river camp and the outlet of the subterranean river as, stout craft though she was, her gasoline supply was getting so low that Frank did not dare to run her at top speed and consequently she would not carry more than three passengers. By nightfall, however, the reunited adventurers were all seated about their campfire and talking and retelling all that had happened to each other during their separation.
Their conversation was interrupted by a strange happening.
The puff-puff of the steam launch that had brought them tip the river was suddenly heard and as she drew alongside the steep bank a familiar figure stepped from her side into the bright moonlight.
Not one of the party that did not give a start of amazed surprise as in the newcomer they recognized:
Luther Barr, of New York!
LUTHER BARR'S TRICK
The astonishing meeting in the remote wilds of the African forest with a man they instinctively mistrusted bereft the lads of words for an interval.
Frank was the first to find his voice:
"Why, Mr. Barr, what are you doing here?" he exclaimed amazedly.
But if the boys seemed astonished Mr. Barr retained his usual icicle-like attitude. Except that he was dressed in tropical white and wore a huge pith helmet which set above his ill-favored features "like a mushroom over a toad," as Billy described it later, he might have just stepped out of his office on Wall Street, instead of from a wheezy launch on a steaming subequatorial river.
"Good-evening, boys, a little late for dinner, I see, but I daresay you can cook me something. After dinner I want to talk to you. I have come a long way for the purpose so you can guess my business is of importance."
"Of importance? I should say so;" sputtered the irrepressible Billy. "Pray did you come by air-ship, Mr. Barr?"
"No, sir, I came in my yacht the Brigand. She is almost as fast as a liner and as I came direct to this port I didn't take more than half the time occupied by you boys on the voyage."
"You had a good trip?" asked Frank as Mr. Barr sat down and began eating the hastily prepared meal which Ben served him.
"Yes, splendid;" said Mr. Barr, "we had one misfortune though. When we were two days out my captain--a splendid man, boys--slipped on the wet foredeck as the yacht was plowing through a heavy sea and struck on his head on a stanchion."
"I hope he was not badly hurt," said Frank.
"He is dead," said Mr. Barr, calmly stuffing half a sweet potato into his capacious mouth.
The boys gave an exclamation of concern.
"Yes, it was very annoying," commented Mr. Barr.
"You see I have had to trust since to the navigation of my mate, and while he is a careful fellow he is not much good as a navigator, and in addition to that he is a drinking man. I am afraid that he may be ashore now in my absence and indulging his taste for strong drink."
"I should have thought you would have forbidden him shore leave," commented Harry.
"No good, my dear boy, that fellow would swim ashore even if the harbor were swarming with sharks, to gratify his disgusting taste."
"But now," he continued with a change of tone, "to business. You have got the ivory?
"We have," replied Frank.
"We have it here," was the quiet rejoinder.
"What!" an amazed tone.
"What I tell you is true," and Frank-foolishly as he admitted afterward-led the way to the cache in the forest; "it is buried here so as to be safe from marauders."
Mr. Barr seemed lost in thought for a few minutes then he suggested a return to the camp-fire. Once there he drew out a paper from his pocket-book.
"Many things have happened since you left New York, boys," he said quietly, through a feverish gleam in his deep, crafty eyes belied his outward calm.
"This paper," he continued, holding it out, "is signed by Mr. Beasley, it resigns to me all claim in the ivory and I am here to take it."'
"Let me look at that paper."
It was Lathrop who spoke.
The boy's cheeks were angrily flushed and his eyes bad a dangerous flash.
"That is not my father's signature!"
"What do you mean?"
"Exactly what I say--that this writing which purports to be my father's was never penned by him."
"You are making a rash assertion."
"I am fully prepared to prove it when we get back to New York."
"And in the meantime the Boy Aviators retain their claim on the ivory that we fought so hard to get," put in Frank.
Old Mr. Barr turned on him with a wolfish fury.
Indeed in his rage he resembled nothing so much as a long, lean, timber wolf deprived of his expected prey.
"We will see all about that!" he raged. "There is a law in Fort Assini though there may not be here. I have this paper here which in the eyes of the law is a legal transfer to me of Beasley's claim on the ivory. It is mine now and I mean to have it."
Frank's heart sank. He did not know much about law and it looked as if old man Barr held the upper hand.
"But that is not my father's signature or writing," cried Lathrop.
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