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- The Air Ship Boys - 10/34 -
"Well," said Ned slowly, "you can work for us as long as you are not too inquisitive."
"Dat's me, boss. I'm de clam till me two dollars per will git me to de next whistle."
"Then you'd better arrange to board with Buck."
"Dat's me lay, boss, already booked. Now show me some work. Me trunk was checked t'roo and I ain't nuttin' on me mind but me job."
"Well, you had better spend the rest of the afternoon in cleaning up a bit," suggested Ned. "Here's five dollars in advance. Report early in the morning."
"Tank's, boss," said Gus, the tramp. But he took the bill slowly.
"But, you can't spend it on beer and whisky and work for us," added Ned.
Gus shifted uneasily.
"You'd better have a bath and a shave. And if you need clothes and can get them here," continued Ned, "I'll advance more to-morrow--if you show up all right."
"I kin work widdout a shave," the man said, "ain't der nuttin' doin' to-day?"
Assured that to-morrow was when he was wanted the tramp slowly and apparently reluctantly turned and slouched away toward the stores.
"What do you make of him, Ned?" asked Alan as the two toys resumed work.
"Too slangy, I think," commented Ned.
But the final stowing of the acid soon drove the tramp from the minds of the boys.
When the young aeronauts finally closed the corral and returned to the car, the sun a great red ball, was just dropping behind the serrated mountains of the western horizon. On the car steps, Ned turned and pointed to the north. Far away the dusky gray of the plains deepened into darker and darker shadows that ended in a low black mass. But here and there from the black wall rose irregular spires, their tops pink-tipped by the red sun.
"Yes," exclaimed Alan, "the Tunit Chas--our mountains."
And even though the vigilant Elmer called from within, the boys stood and gazed in silence until the last glow had died away and the land of their hopes was lost under the stars.
Important as was the work to be done in Buck's corral, there was another vital thing to be accomplished while this progressed. That was the creation of a base of supplies near the navigator's field of work. This was preferably to be at the junction of the Amarilla and Chusco rivers, and that point lay just eighty-five miles to the north. Between Clarkeville and that spot there were no roads and, at this time of the year, perhaps, no water. With the best wagon and team they might be able to get, this trip over the desert would require not less than five days.
It was impossible for either of the boys to go on this important errand, as both were needed on the spot to set up the balloon. So it had long since been decided that Elmer was to have charge of this secondary expedition. And since it was Elmer who would have to conduct the expedition safely to its destination and establish a relief camp, the colored boy had been thoroughly coached in his coming task.
"Kin I?" the boy had said more than once. "When de Cibola gits dar I'll be dar. And ain't no Indians nor rattlesnakes nor hot weather goin' to break up dat camp."
And the camp meant gasoline, water, food and a stepping stone back to civilization, whether the expedition ended in failure or success. As the boys had already planned that Buck should furnish the wagon and horses and guide Elmer's caravan, they had asked him to call that evening to talk it over.
"I'm ready to start, yes, right now," Elmer had said as he served the good supper over which he had been laboring, "but I does jes nach'elly hate to turn you young gemmen over to dese greaser cooks."
The boys laughed. "You don't think we can keep this up all summer, do you?" exclaimed, Ned. "Even 'greaser' cooks are better than having nothing to eat. And up there," nodding toward the north, "there won't be any cooks."
"Don't forget," interrupted Elmer, "camp--camp--well, my camp. When you get dar dar'll be a good meal waitin' you and when you git outen de mountains I'll still be dar waitin' wid eatin's."
The boys laughed again.
"Like as not," suggested Alan, "if you get all that truck up there. You'll certainly have enough. But don't you bother about the eating. You just watch the water and the gasoline."
"Till de snow flies," exclaimed Elmer with emphasis.
"Which, right there," dryly remarked Ned as he disposed of the last of a generous slice of melon, "is rather indefinite."
When Buck, whose real name they had discovered to be William Bourke--easily corrupted into "Buck"--appeared, the boys had a delicate job before them. Inquiry had quickly shown them that Buck's twenty-five years on the old Santa Fe trail as guide and an active service in the army as scout easily made him the man to conduct Elmer to the north.
To all their long explanations and reasons Buck listened in silence. When there seemed nothing more to be said, Buck smothered the still glowing end of a cigarette between his dark weather-beaten fingers and said slowly:
"When do we start?"
It was arranged that on the second morning Buck should be ready for a journey of uncertain length; that the general direction should be north; that the final destination should be revealed by Elmer on the second morning out.
"Soldier-like," Buck had commented, "and that's the way I like it."
Buck and an assistant were to take an outfit of two wagons, each drawn by four horses. In the lighter wagon six barrels of water were to be carried for use in case the usual "water holes" were dry. In case of an accident, the lighter wagon and horses were to be sent south by the second man and Elmer and Buck were to make a quick dash forward with what water and supplies could be carried on the other wagon.
Old Buck made rather light of the matter.
"Injuns ain't nothin' nowadays," he had explained, shrugging his shoulders, "ye jest want to keep yer bearin's and git used to drinkin' atmosphere and ye'r all right."
The contract with Buck called for thirty dollars a day in money and food for himself and a helper. Both parties to the contract were satisfied and after Buck's fresh cigarette disappeared in the direction of the town the boys lost no time in turning in for a good night's rest.
AN ERROR IN CALCULATION
While Buck was busy getting his wagons and horses and water casks ready the next morning the boys were not surprised to see Gus, the tramp, drive up just after breakfast with the moving team.
"Have you had breakfast?" asked Alan by way of a greeting.
"Have," retorted Gus, pulling up his team awkwardly. "It's me wrappin' meself around tortillas till I feel like a bag o' corn meal."
"I can't see that you've spent any great amount of that five dollars on yourself," interrupted Ned, noticing the tramp's unshaven face and the still visible traces of coal smoke.
"Well, boss, ye'r right. Dead right. But, ye see, de barber o' dis growin' city only works on Saturday and me friend Buck's bat' tub has a leak. Anyhow, de ladies hereabouts is scarce and few. Think wot a swell I'll be when Sunday comes."
"Come in the car. We've plenty of water, and soap too," suggested Alan, smiling.
'"Well, boss, don't tempt me. I'm working. I can't soldier away no time dudin' meself up on do bosses' time."
"All right," replied Ned, laughing, "every one to his taste."
There was plenty of work to be done, and in a few minutes all were at it. The chief task this day was the unloading of the materials yet on the car. That had to be done by night, except in the case of the boxes marked "Overland," all of which had been carefully and specially crated for wagon transportation. Of these there seemed a great many, and they were all put in one pile in the space made vacant by the removal of the gas generators. The hydrogen case, covered with a blanket, stood always under Elmer's watchful eye. This was to be removed last.
As the boys meant to stay close by their valuable outfit, they planned to load Elmer's caravan early the next morning and to see it start on its trying and dangerous trip. Then they intended to remove the hydrogen cask to the corral and take up their own abode in the same place. The Placida--with no little regret--was to be surrendered to the railroad and returned to Chicago.
For that reason this was a busy day. Load after load of crates,
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