Roy Glashan's Library.
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Garrett P. Serviss' "futuristic" novel The Sky Pirate made its first appearance as a serial in The Scrap Book (later merged with The Cavalier), a monthly magazine published by the Frank A. Munsey Corporation. It was printed in six parts from April to September, 1909. It reached a far larger readership when it was re-published under syndication in American newspapers, but—until now—it never appeared in book form.
Written in 1909 but set in 1930, the story envisions a future in which the fast and high-maneuverable "aero" (Serviss' term for an "airship") has become a major means of travel and transportation. This development gives rise to the re-birth of piracy—this time in the air and dominated, as Serviss tells us in his prologue, by a new brand of buccaneer.
The RGL first edition offered here was prepared from image files of the serial version published in the Texan newspaper The El Paso Herald from July 12 to August 10, 1911. It includes illustrations drawn by an artist identified only as "Parker." Obvious typographical errors have been corrected without comment.
—Roy Glashan, 20 November 2017.
The sea pirate has long been a figure of romance but the march of progress has driven him into well-deserved retirement, and he has now been replaced, in fiction at least, by the sky pirate, who is even more mysterious, more daring and more romantic than his predecessor. Read, and there will unfold before you the extraordinary story of Captain Alfonso Payton and his airship, the Chameleon; of William Grayman, the richest man in the world; of his beautiful daughter, for whom ransom $10,000,000 was demanded; of Lieutenant Allen of the Revenue Service; of wonders by wireless and fierce battles above the clouds.
THE extraordinary outbreak of piracy which followed with such astonishing promptness the general adoption of aerial navigation in the fourth decade of the twentieth century will no doubt be regarded by future historians as one of the greatest curiosities of human annals. It has already been the subject of much laborious, research and of many learned disquisitions, while the public has eagerly devoured the "lives" of a dozen of those astounding marauders of the atmosphere, who descended from the sky with the speed and ferocity of famished eagles. Whole towns were sometimes laid under contribution, the terror inspired by dropping bombs banishing all thought of effective resistance.
Of all the desperate adventurers of that period none was so fascinating in personality or had the romantic charm that characterized Captain Alfonso Payton, a Spanish-American, whose real Christian name was probably that which he gave, but who had dropped the name of his family, which was said to be one of the oldest and proudest in Spain, dating back to the days of the conquistadores. Payton's exploits In his famous aero Chameleon commanded a great deal of attention at times in the newspapers, but this story has never been fully told, and the closing details, the most amazing of all, were with held from public knowledge for reasons which will be apparent in what I am about to relate.
Payton, or "Captain Alfonso," as his reckless crew always called him, was one of the handsomest men that I have ever, seen. He had a Spaniard's eyes and complexion, with the stature and rigor of a modern American, while his manners were those of an ideal prince. The charm of his personality was felt by everybody who came in contact with him. He was exceedingly well educated, especially in everything which makes a man attractive to women, and if he had chosen to lead an honest life he could unquestionably have married almost any heiress or any beautiful girl that he might have fancied, and he would have been an ornament to society.
But he was a born pirate. Brave and fearless, he was absolutely reckless of the opinions of mankind, rejoiced in his wickedness, sought only the gratification of his whims and pleasures, and yet he could commit an outrage on the liberty and personal rights of others with such winning gentleness, such delicate consideration for their feelings, that often the sting was not at the moment perceived. Payton's methods were peculiar. He had chosen his line, and he stuck to it until the end. He never attacked treasure-laden fliers, such as the early transatlantic liners of the International Aero express, which constituted the favorite prey of Morton, the other great pirate of the period, but he made an exclusive specialty of kidnapping, and almost invariably he kidnapped women, whom he treated with the utmost delicacy and consideration consistent with sure capture and safe-keeping. There were many instances familiar to newspaper-readers of his magic personality so working upon his victims that he won their respect and even friendship.
Nevertheless he was without mercy in his exactions. The object of all his abductions was ransom. No tears, no entreaties, no consideration whatever, had the slightest effect upon him. Pay or stay was his word.
The exploit which finally brought Payton's career to an end was the most extraordinary and romantic in all the long list of his adventures and one which would never have been dreamed of by a man less recklessly daring. At that time the most talked-about and the wealthiest of New York's billionaires was the late William Grayman. He had accumulated a stupendous fortune by means of a "corner in banks."
I was a young lieutenant in charge of a government aero engaged in the Revenue Service, and the one thing outside my regular occupation that especially interested me was the progress of invention growing out of the old wireless telegraph.
Mr. Grayman, who had long been a widower, had an only child, Miss Helen Grayman who was one of the most beautiful girls in the richest social circle of New York and was doted on by her father. She was about eighteen years of age, and it was the common report that several European counts and dukes and one prince sought her hand. But it was also averred that she had refused them all.
This made Miss Grayman popular with thousands who had never met her. I recall that my interest in Miss Grayman was first pleasantly awakened by seeing her portrait in a Sunday journal over the title of "An American Girl Who Is True to America."
One evening late in June 1930, Miss Grayman had retired to her room on the third story of her father's splendid mansion in Fifth Avenue and was about to begin her toilet for the night with the aid of her maid, Susan Jackson, when a peculiar noise at one of the windows facing Central Park attracted their attention. Miss Grayman had a favorite cat, which sometimes signified its desire to enter her room by tapping on the door, and she directed Susan to open the lattice. The girl threw the window wide open, expecting, like her mistress, to see the cat leap in.
But instead of the cat a man stepped inside.
He was instantly followed by a companion. Before the affrighted girls could utter the scream that was upon their lips they were seized and gagged, though with all possible gentleness, and then were swiftly carried out of the window and upon the deck of an aero which floated against the wall of the house. The leader darted back into the room, saying, "I'll put out the light."
He was gone only a minute. As soon as he emerged, leaving the room in darkness, the aero glided out over the trees of the park. The hour was not very late; but, although the avenue and the park in places were brilliantly lighted, no passer-by seems to have noticed the presence of the aero.
Neither of the men who had entered the room wore a mask or made any attempt at personal concealment. In fact, the leader immediately impressed Miss Grayman with his remarkably handsome and refined face, as well as his instinctive politeness and gentility.
In a few minutes the aero had risen to a considerable elevation, revealing the fiery lines of the streets below, and then it flitted out into the darkness over the Hudson. The handkerchiefs that had been bound over the captives' mouths were now removed, and they were led into a beautiful little cabin, brilliantly illuminated with colored electric lights, near the center of the deck.
Both sank into chairs, and Captain Payton—for of course it was he—took a seat opposite to them. He smiled in so friendly and reassuring a manner that it was impossible for Miss Grayman to be afraid of him. The idea of a criminal attempt upon her liberty never entered her thoughts. She imagined that it was a huge practical joke perpetrated by some of her intimate friends, and she tried to think who among them would be most likely to venture upon such an exploit.
"I must beg a thousand pardons for carrying you off in this way, Miss Grayman," Payton said, "and I wish at once to offer my absolute assurance that no possible harm to you is intended. I have been in a manner compelled to act as I have done for reasons which you will shortly understand. Since I know your charitable disposition and your sympathy with the unfortunate, I feel sure that I can count upon your heartfelt support in an enterprise which has been undertaken in order to afford a great and a fully deserved gratification to certain persons who have not been treated by the world with even-handed justice. For the carrying out of this enterprise your co-operation and presence have been thought essential."
This extraordinary speech was delivered in a manner as confiding and gracious and with a smile so winning that Miss Grayman was far from detecting the irony that lurked in it. She now became more than ever convinced that this was really a ruse of some of her friends to engage her in a romantic adventure, although she could not imagine why they should have chosen so singular a method of enlisting her. But it had the charm of great novelty, and youth, inexperience and high spirits united to give her a delightful thrill of undefined interest in the escapade. She felt quite at her ease and was prepared to enjoy some most pleasant surprises. She answered, therefore, with no little gayety of manner:
"Mr.——of course I do not know your name, you know——"
"Brown," Payton replied promptly and with an even more engaging smile than that which had before illumined his countenance, "Commodore Frederick Brown of the Washington Aero-Yacht Club."
It was a lucky hit, though made entirely at random. It happened that Miss Grayman had many close friends in Washington, and now she could no longer entertain the least doubt of the correctness of her original surmise. This Commodore Brown evidently belonged to the best circle of society at the capital and had been selected by her friends to act as intermediary in their plot. The extravagance of the notion of having her carried off without the least warning or preparation at such an hour and by a stranger did not occur to her excited imagination. It seemed all as delightful as a fairy-tale, and she tingled with the desire to witness the dénouement which could not fail to be most entertaining. With girlish eagerness she asked, with a knowing look:
"Where have they told you to take me?"
Payton was the shrewdest of the shrewd. He saw in a second the trend of Miss Grayman's thoughts and the advantage which it would give him. So, assuming an appearance of some confusion at being so quickly found out, he answered:
"Oh, you know I mustn't tell you that. It would spoil all the fun. You'll understand everything when we get there."
And then he broke out with a laugh so joyous, hearty and insinuating that the girl laughed with him, while Susan, stretched her mouth in a broad grin over the unexpected hilarity.
"We've got quite a run before us," Payton resumed in a more serious manner, "and I think, if you will permit the suggestion, that it would be well for you to turn in, as we navigators say. I have a little cabin which, I hope, that you will find comfortable, and, with your permission, I will show you to it."
He led the way, courteously opened a door amidships, touched a knob to turn on the electric light within the apartment and as soon as the girls had entered bowed low' with formal politeness, saying as he turned on his heel:
"I wish you pleasant dreams. Good-night!"
The little room in which they found themselves might have been regarded as elegant anywhere. It was lavishly furnished, but with good taste, and contained two small beds.
"Good Lordy, Miss Helen!" Susan exclaimed as soon as they were alone. "What will your father say?"
The remark struck to Miss Grayman's heart. It was the first time she had thought of her father and of his distress when he should discover her absence But her eager mind was full of resources.
"No doubt papa knows all about it," she replied. "It is my friends who are doing this, you know, and of course they must have taken him secretly into their confidence; otherwise they never would have ventured so far. And what a handsome man Commodore Brown is, and so agreeable!"
It required no more than the suggestion of her fancy to persuade the romantic girl that her father was aware of the ruse and had given his consent to it. This thought increased her confidence so much that, with the utmost self possession, she prepared to retire and was soon sleeping as peacefully as if she had been in her own chamber, the imperceptible motion of the aero being totally free from the disturbing effects of the rolling and pitching of a marine craft.
But Susan, with less peace of mind, lay awake thinking and wondering for hours.
WHEN Miss Grayman and her maid awoke the Chameleon was running high in the cool blue morning air, and the rays of the just risen sun were streaming across the tops of seemingly boundless forests spread far below them. They were, indeed, at so great an elevation that the hills and valleys, covered by the green mantle of the trees, resembled the swells and troughs of immense waves. Here and there a bare rocky mass rose out of the sea of vegetation, like an island.
Miss Grayman had never been on an aero before. Her father always preferred the old-fashioned railroads and steamships, and she seldom made even a short journey without him. As she glanced over the edge of the deck, which seemed frightfully close, and her eyes ranged down the clear atmospheric depths, beholding the earth so beneath, she became giddy and clung convulsively to her companion. But Susan was no less affected than her mistress by the unaccustomed experience and could lend her neither support nor courage. They were about precipitately to retire into their room when the cheery voice of Commodore Brown was heard as he approached, smiling and bowing gallantly.
"Good morning, Miss Grayman," he said. "You are out rather earlier than I expected, and I must apologize for not having had your coffee prepared sooner. It will be sent to your room at once. As soon as you have finished your breakfast if you will come out on deck again I can promise that you will no longer experience distress from our elevation. I fancy that you are not accustomed to these heights."
"It is my first aerial trip," she replied.
"I am charmed to have had the opportunity of offering a new pleasure to Miss Grayman," he responded, "for a pleasure I know you will find it to be."
Miss Grayman colored slightly and glanced at Payton with a smile which she would not have bestowed upon him if she had guessed his real character or the seriousness of her own situation. She was on the point of referring again to the supposed plot of her friends when an unmistakable Frenchwoman with a white cap on her head appeared, bearing a steaming urn. At Payton's order she placed it on a table in Miss Grayman's room.
"Go," said Payton, "and take your coffee while it is hot. Afterward we will look over the landscape, which I dare say is the most extensive you have ever seen."
Miss Grayman and Susan entered their apartment, and Payton turned away.
"I'm sure I shall like it," said Miss Grayman as they sipped their coffee. "How easy the motion is! It's much pleasanter than a ship. I don't know why papa would never take an aero, but he'll have to do it hereafter, for I shall insist. I know I shall not be the least bit afraid or dizzy when, we go out again. It was the surprise that upset me at first seeing things so awfully far down, you know."
Payton was waiting for them when they emerged.
"Oh," he exclaimed, "isn't this glorious? Look at the view!"
It was indeed a most splendid prospect that was spread beneath them. The sun had risen higher, and flocks of beautiful clouds were casting picturesque shadows that flitted across the rolling green surface of the earth.
"Why, the aero is all dressed in white!" cried Miss Grayman, catching sight of the white fluffy material that played in the wind created by their rapid motion.
"Why shouldn't she wear gala dress when she carries such a passenger and goes on such an errand?" responded Payton, with a bow.
Whatever of impertinence there might have been in his words was softened into a graceful and acceptable compliment by his voice and manner, and Miss Grayman blushed and smiled in return.
"Really, Commodore Brown, you do me too much honor," she said.
"Impossible," was the reply, "but I know what is required in recognition of the honor your friends have done me."
"Where shall we meet our friends?" she asked quickly.
"You certainly wouldn't wish me to betray a confidence," he replied, smiling. "I should like to answer, but for the present my lips are sealed."
"Oh, then tell me, please, how high up are we? Susan says a hundred miles, but I say not more than ten."
Payton laughed heartily.
"Well," he said, "you are nearer the truth than Susan, although your estimate, too, is a trifle extravagant. Let me see—" and he consulted an indicator on the outer wall of the cabin. "We are just a mile and a half above sea-level and about three-quarters of a mile above the highest peaks that you see down there."
"Then I guessed truly that we were going over mountains?"
"To be sure we are. But it is not quite an unbroken wilderness. You see that little town In the valley yonder, don't you?"
"Is that a town?" asked Miss Grayman, with surprise. "I thought it was a heap of rocks."
"No, it is a town, though not a large one. But you can see smoke rising from some of the chimneys."
"What is the name of the town?"
"I mustn't tell you that just now, you know."
"Oh, yes; I forgot that you are pledged to secrecy. But I suppose I am at liberty to guess, and I guess that these are the Catskills."
"Perhaps," said Payton, with another smile. "Really, Miss Grayman," he added in a serious tone, "if I had foreseen how unpleasant it would be to decline to answer your perfectly reasonable questions I should have hesitated to accept this mission."
The girl actually rebuked herself for letting her curiosity Increase the embarrassment of a gentleman who she felt must keenly regret his rather equivocal position.
"You know the Mitchells in Washington, I suppose?" she asked.
Payton saw that if this question were followed by a cross-examination he would be trapped; accordingly he shut off that line of inquiry at once.
"Oh, Miss Grayman," he said, "of course I know almost everybody worth knowing in Washington, but really, you see, if we begin to discuss these things we shall inevitably tread upon forbidden ground—forbidden, you understand, only for the moment. Afterward, in a little while, everything will be clear and we can talk freely. In the meantime let me beg of you not to lose the enjoyment of this glorious cruise in the pure morning air.
"It is wonderfully beautiful," replied Miss Grayman, "and to me the appearance of the earth seen from so great a height is indeed a revelation. It is entirely unlike the view from a mountain. And then it glides away under us so fast it seems as if it were flying and we were standing still! But, look!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands, "we are actually among the clouds!"
A huge roller of cirro-cumulus which seemed rushing to meet them had suddenly attracted her attention. It was so dazzlingly beautiful that for a moment she closed her eyes. The sun-beams that transfused its margins encircled it with a border of gold and pink, while the denser central parts were of a delicate pearl gray clouded with soft opaline masses. Suddenly the Chameleon plunged into the cloud. In an instant the sunshine and the color were gone, the blue sky vanished, the earth beneath was concealed, and they seemed to have passed from the brilliant morning into a thick, damp, dismal fog. Raindrops gathered on the rigging of the aero, and with surprising quickness the deck became dripping wet The cold, by contrast, seemed intense and very penetrating, and Miss Grayman shivered.
"Go into your room, at once, Miss Grayman," said Payton. "This is no place for you now; you will take cold. In a few minutes we shall emerge from the cloud and all will be as before."
She was about to obey, calling Susan to follow her, when a spasm seemed to seize her, succeeded by a paralysis which prohibited all movement. She became as helpless as if her hands had grasped the handles of a powerful electrical machine. At the same time a curious crackling noise broke out on all sides and little pointed flames flickered on every jutting object. Susan cried out in terror, but Miss Grayman was unable to open her lips.
These enigmatical electric phenomena which manifest themselves capriciously when one is among the clouds were comparatively unfamiliar in those days, and even yet little is really known about them. A singular blue light which spread a ghastly illumination around the aero added to the consternation, and Susan fainted from fright.
Payton sprang to aid Miss Grayman. As he touched her hand a blinding spark leaped forth, and he dropped to the deck, but was on his feet again in a second. At the same moment Miss Grayman felt the force which had held her immovable relax its grasp, and she, too, fell in a dead faint beside Susan.
When they came to themselves they found that they were in their little cabin. Payton stood beside them with a smelling bottle in his hand; the cook was near with another; the door was wide open, and brilliant sunshine was pouring in.
"Do not feel any alarm, Miss Grayman," he said. "It is all over. There was no real danger. The spirits of the air were a little inconsiderate in welcoming you to their domain, but they meant well. I have often been similarly shocked by them, but it is only intended for a friendly pat on the shoulder."
As Payton spoke he laughed so cheeringly that Miss Grayman could but smile in response.
"I am afraid that I shall not like your spirits of the air, Commodore Brown," she said. "They are rather too exuberant in their greetings. I do not care to meet them again."
"And you shall not," replied Payton. "We have dropped down below the region of the clouds and are now entirely outside their fairy realm. They will trouble us no more with their attentions. You may be interested to learn that we are nearing our destination."
"Oh," said Miss Grayman, instantly rising, full of vivacity, "then our friends are close at hand!"
"I hope so," said Payton, "but we may have got the start of them. We shall know in a short time."
Payton had a wireless telephone apparatus on the Chameleon, and he now retired to his cabin and sent out a call, to which after a brief interval he had a response. He then held a long conversation with some distant interlocutor. When the conversation was finished Payton hung up his receiver and leaned back in his chair with a laugh. But it was a very different laugh from that with which he was accustomed to put his "guests" into good humor and make them feel that he was the most agreeable of companions. It was a laugh that would have sent a chill to Miss Grayman's heart, so cold, so cruel, so expressive was it of satisfied cunning and anticipated triumph.
It was a couple of hours before Payton knocked at the door of the little cabin and called Miss Grayman out to witness the arrival of the aero at its destination. She was a little surprised to find how rapidly they had descended from their aerial flight. They were now within a hundred feet or so of the ground, and as she glanced around she could see nothing but trees on all sides— tall, wild-looking trees whose aspect proclaimed that they at least belonged to a real wilderness.
"I begin to doubt," said Miss Grayman, addressing Susan, for Payton had immediately withdrawn to superintend the landing, "whether we are, after all, in the Catskills. I don't believe that the Catskill woods are so large."
"But there was a town, you know," said Susan.
"Ah, yes, but we may have come hundreds of miles since we saw that. I can't understand why my friends should have put the rendezvous at such a distance, but I suppose they had some good reason. Anyhow, we shall soon see them now, and all will be explained. Just think of it! They must have come by aero also. Isn't It romantic?"
While they were talking the Chameleon quietly descended until her aeroplane almost swept the top branches of the tall pines and hemlocks. Her movements were directed by sharp, short orders from Payton. Suddenly she sank through an opening in the treetops and entered a forest glade, and, with the branches sweeping overhead, she moved very cautiously, like a ship in a tortuous channel. Then a partial clearing appeared directly ahead, and a gleam of water came to their eyes. This soon resolved itself into a small lake, embosomed in the forest, with a large building on its shore.
"Stop her!" commanded Payton.
A shiver ran through the aero, she settled gracefully for a few seconds and came to rest just in front of the building. Immediately two men in woodsmen or hunter's dress ran to meet her, and in the door of the building appeared a stout, ruddy faced woman wearing a huge white cap and smiling a welcome.
"We have arrived safely, Miss Grayman," said Payton, approaching, hat in hand. "Permit me to assist you down."
She took his offered hand and descended upon a bright, sandy path which led from the lake to the house.
"I welcome you to my lodge in the wilderness," said Payton. "It has never had a guest who could do it so much honor."
"Then this is yours?" she exclaimed.
"Oh, yes; it belongs to me, but quite as much to my friends!"
"But where are my friends?"
"I had hoped to be counted as one of them," Payton replied, smiling. "But, unfortunately, the others have not yet come. I rather expected to distance them, for my aero has few rivals for fleetness, but they cannot be far away. Let me put you in charge of my housekeeper, Mrs. Williams, who will make you as comfortable as possible until their arrival. Ask her for anything that you may require and command her as if she were your own servant.
"Mrs. Williams," he continued, "this is Miss Grayman of New York. Show her and her maid to the front suite and see that she lacks nothing to make her comfortable."
Mrs. Williams made a profound curtsy, and her smile broadened as she led the way into the lodge.
MR. GRAYMAN on the morning after the events already described waited long at the breakfast table, and at last, growing impatient, he sent to his daughter's room. It was empty! So the servant reported.
"Empty!" Mr. Grayman exclaimed. "What do you mean?"
"Miss Helen is not there, and her bed has not been occupied. We can find not race of her or of Susan."
Mr. Grayman could not believe his ears. He was of a choleric temperament, except in business.
"You Idiot!" he said, brushing the girl aside. "I'll go myself and see."
He ascended to his daughter's apartments. In a few minutes he had convinced himself of the truth of the incredible report. Miss Grayman was not to be found, and neither her bed nor Susan's had been disturbed. He was absolutely stunned. His daughter, although of a romantic disposition, was most regular in her habits, and she had seldom spent a night out of the house when he was in it He treasured her as the apple of his eye. She formed the only bond between him and the world of sentiment. He never suffered her to be long out of his sight. In summer, they went together to one of his country places, or to the mountains, or the seaside, or sometimes to Europe. That she should vanish out of his own house, from under his very eyes, was a thing beyond all possibility of belief. It simply could not be so. And yet it was so.
After the first half-paralyzing shock produced by this tremendous fact Mr. Grayman became angry. He abused the servants who flocked, wondering, around Miss Grayman's door. When the housekeeper appeared, bustling to the rescue with an imaginary explanation of the disappearance half-uttered on her lips, he lost all patience and chased her downstairs. Mr. Grayman, the great billionaire, noted for his coolness and his nerve, had almost gone mad. He had met his first check in thirty years and in a form that he could not endure.
The occurrence was so unprecedented that he could not think connectedly about it or about what to do. The butler was more clear-headed than his master.
"I think it will be necessary to send for the police, sir," he suggested.
"The police!" cried Mr. Grayman. "What have they got to do with it? What do the police know about my daughter?"
"But—but, sir," stammered the man, "she may—she may have been carried off."
"Carried off! Who would carry her off, you fool? Who could carry her off here?"
"I don't know, sir. But she wouldn't have gone of herself, would she, sir?"
At this one of the maids, in whose hard, practical brain the butler's remark had struck the spark of an idea, said in an undertone to a companion:
"Could it have been that Lord Darnley? He was always hanging around her."
Mr. Grayman's ear caught the words. Now, this was something which might have been expected to anger him—the suggestion that his daughter would elope. But instead it simply shocked his mind back into a normal state. In a instant he had become master of himself and of the situation.
"Go about your duties," he said quietly in his ordinary tones. "We are making trouble about nothing. I had really forgotten what my daughter told me last night. I have been so over-pressed with business that it escaped me. She has not disappeared. I know where she is. It was only my forgetfulness. Think no more about it."
This was again the William Grayman who knew how to make billions. In a flash he had reached his decision. If his daughter had run away at the instigation of one of her suitors—a thing he did not yet believe—it was absolutely essential that the fact should be suppressed, at least until he knew all the circumstances. The idea of a forcible abduction did not occur to him. It would have appeared to his mind too absurd to be entertained. Still, he felt that he needed the aid of the police, as the butler had suggested, but it must be secret and it must never be known—least of all to his servants. He, of course, had the means of securing secrecy, at least as far as secrecy is humanly possible, for money can shut as well as open all mouths. A million dollars would be a bagatelle to William Grayman if It guarded his family from scandal.
His mind was made up as to the action that he should take. In his ordinary manner, at his usual hour, he summoned his wits. Before leaving the house he called for the housekeeper.
"I was a little rude in my excitement this morning," he said to her, "and it was all so absurd. It was due to my forgetfulness, inspired by intense application to business. My daughter may be absent some time. She went away quietly with Susan last night to stay with some friends out of town, but her absences are so infrequent and I am so accustomed to seeing her at the breakfast-table that the fact really slipped my mind in the midst of so many cares, and I made a useless scene, which I regret."
Grayman was almost a match for Captain Alfonso Payton in the perfection of his dissimulation, and the housekeeper solemnly accepted his statement.
Mr. Grayman rode to his office and immediately summoned Police Commissioner Braman by telephone. That official did not think It beneath his dignity, instantly to answer a call to the office of William Grayman—a call that came from the billionaire himself.
When the commissioner arrived Grayman took him into his innermost sanctum and immediately astonished him beyond measure.
"Commissioner." he said, "my daughter disappeared last night from my house, and I want you to find out what has become of her."
The commissioner caught his breath.
"Your daughter! Disappeared!" he gasped.
"Stop a moment!" said Grayman. "Understand that this is a profound secret and must remain so. I will make it worth your while to shut the mouth of every detective that you employ. No questions must be asked of the servants that could possibly lead them to suspect that an inquiry is on foot They think that my daughter has gone away on a visit You can draw on me for any amount at any time until the girl is found. Now, listen."
And Grayman proceeded to tell the story of the morning. When he had finished he asked in his blunt autocratic way:
"Now, tell me what you will do. What is your plan?"
The commissioner begged for a little time to think it over.
"I can have no plan yet." he said, "but I'll find one. With your permission I'll send a confidential man to your house and get a basis for further action."
"Very well." said Grayman; "let it be done. But remember my restriction. Not a word must escape anywhere not a single word or hint!"
The chief promised the most absolute secrecy and, with great perturbation of mind, returned in all haste to headquarters.
When Mr. Grayman was left alone his self-command relaxed. His daughter was dearer to him than his fortune. He could not drive the agonizing thought of her strange disappearance from his mind. It unmanned him. He refused all callers, pretending to be too busy to see anyone. It was the most uncomfortable morning had ever spent.
Toward noon the wireless telephone bell in his sanctum rang sharply. Only his exclusive intimates ever called him up here. The apparatus was reserved for the secrets of high finance— secrets that could be entrusted only to soundless ether. He put the receive to his ear.
"Hello!" came a voice that he did not recognize. "Reply undirected."
This meant that Grayman should respond with a "hello" sent out by undirected waves radiating on all sides so that they would reach the original speaker whatever his location might be. This, as those who are familiar with the early history of wireless telegraphy know, was at first the only way in which messages could be sent, and many years were spent in fruitless efforts to direct them to definite places and thus prevent them from being picked up by Tom, Dick or Harry at all points of the compass. Fortunately all that, even at the time of which I am writing, had been completely mastered, although the original method was still occasionally employed for special purposes, as in the present case. So complete, indeed, was the solution of the problem that wireless telegraph and telephone messages had already become as exclusive as the ancient telegraph system. Each subscriber, as at the present day, had a syntonized instrument, duly numbered, which responded only to a limited set of waves, which might be compared with the characteristic spectral line of a chemical substance, no confusion being possible. At need any receiver can be thrown open to take undirected and unsyntonized messages.
Accordingly Mr. Grayman, although greatly surprised that any of his confidential correspondents should summon him thus, replied in the manner indicated:
"Hello! What do you want?"
"William Grayman?" came the response, interrogatively inflected.
"Himself In person?"
"Very good. In the air."
This last phrase may also need a word of explanation. It is used to indicate that the Interlocutor is afloat and that he either does not know or does not take the trouble to designate his position in the atmosphere by reference to some known point on the earth's surface.
"Who is it?" demanded Mr. Grayman.
"Captain Alfonso Payton."
"Who? I don't know such a person. Who are you? I can't bother—"
"I am afraid. Mr. Grayman," interrupted the voice, "that you confine your attention a little too exclusively to the financial columns of the newspapers. If you don't recognize my name. Yet I might well figure in them also. My transactions are frequently large enough, as you are going to find out. Most people know me as the sky pirate."
"What nonsense Is this?" exclaimed Mr. Grayman impatiently. "How have you dared—"
"No nonsense at all, Mr. Grayman." the voice again interrupted, "and as for daring, listen. I took your daughter Helen from your house last night, and she, with her maid Susan, is here on my aero, the Chameleon."
Grayman's heart nearly stopped beating.
"What? What is that?" he exclaimed.
"I have your daughter in my custody," the voice responded with distinct deliberation. "She is in no danger of any kind and will be in none provided that you accede promptly to the terms which I am going to give you. If you do not you will never see her again."
There was a cold, self-confident, convincing tone to the voice that sent a shiver through the billionaire's nerves. He wiped the cold sweat from his brow with one hand, while with the other he clung to the receiver and pressed it to his ear.
The strange voice went on, for he was incapable for the moment of interruption or reply:
"If you meet my demand she will be restored to yon without publicity and without injury. You are the richest man in the world, they say. You best know how you have acquired your riches, but that is no affair of mine. I have, however, pressing need of a part of your plunder. My terms are $10,000,000!"
"What infernal trick are you trying on me?" exclaimed Mr. Grayman, losing his temper and at the same time recovering his nerve and the incredulity natural to a man in such circumstances. "Who are you anyway? I'll hear no more of this!"
"It must be that some crank has found out my number," said the billionaire to himself. "I must see the company about this."
He was about to drop the receiver when the voice began again:
"If you want to see your daughter again, Mr. Grayman, you'll not try to cut off this conversation. If you still don't know me—ask any newspaperman or almost any man in the street who Alfonso Payton is and what he does when he makes a good capture and gets no response to a fair offer. I repeat that I have your daughter. I took her from the window of her room with my aero last night. I will release her for the sum that I have named. Ten million dollars will leave hardly a perceptible vacancy in your pocket, but that which will happen to your daughter if you fail to pay will pickle your heart in vitriol. I know you have a heart for her."
Mr. Grayman's anger vanished again, and a cold fear began to take its place. His incredulity vanished also. His daughter was gone, and this might really be the explanation of her disappearance. He suddenly remembered to have heard of Payton and his evil doings. He recalled the name of the Chameleon also.
The voice began again, and Mr. Grayman could but listen:
"I beg you, for your own and your daughter's sake, not to make the mistake of thinking that this is a trick. What I am telling you Is the exact truth. I hold the girl, and I have all the trumps in my hand. Don't think of the police. They can't help you. No one ever succeeded in running me down, and no one ever will. Now give me your answer. Will you deal with me for the life and honor of your daughter or will you not? Yes or no. If yes, I will tell you how to proceed If no, I shall lose no time in making Helen wish that she had had a father who loved her."
During all of this extraordinary conversation Payton, in the cabin of the Chameleon, with Helen only a few feet away, was sending his messages "directed," and consequently his words were heard only by Mr. Grayman, but the tatter's replies were "undirected" and might have been heard by a hundred persons in a hundred different places, although, of course, they would have possessed no significance.
As Grayman recalled what he had heard and read of Payton, a horrible sensation came over him. Helen must rescued at once! He must temporize with this villain and get the better of him when he could. What harm to promise the ten millions? In his heart he felt that he would willingly give them to have his daughter once more in his arms. In the turmoil of his spirit he lost a whole minute. Suddenly a ring came, and the voice, very grave, said:
"Come! No fooling, Mr. Grayman. I have your daughter right here in my hands. No power under God can save her if you do not answer me instantly."
"I dare not say 'no,'" thought the billionaire, "for all this may be true. I'll answer yes, and then we shall see."
He spoke the word.
"I congratulate you on your good sense, Mr. Grayman," came the instant response, "and on your fatherly affection. Have no fear now. Helen shall not be harmed unless you attempt treachery. Remember that! Now I'll tell you how to proceed. In two days go to the bluff overlooking the Mohawk river, at Tribes Hill, New York. I'll be there, and we will arrange for the payment of the money and the delivery of the girl at another place. You may come armed if you like, but you must have no friends on the ground, and you must not come in an aero. We will meet alone, man to man, and I pledge you my word, which I have never broken, that no personal injury will be offered to you. I have your daughter, which is all I need, I shall not gain, but lose, by offering any violence to you. Simply remember that there must be no treachery. Goodby."
Mr. Grayman called out, "Where are you?" But this time there was no response. The conversation was ended.
The billionaire sank back into his chair, his thoughts still in a whirl. But he could not get away from the conviction that his daughter was really the pirate's prisoner. The question was how to rescue her. There must be no false steps. The scoundrel had placed himself in his hands by giving him a rendezvous. But there might be danger both to himself and to his daughter in trying to outwit him. He must consult the chief of police.
"Do you know Alfonso Payton?" Mr. Grayman asked as soon as the commissioner entered The latter stared dumfounded.
"Payton hasn't got her, ha she? Then God help you!" he blurted out.
"Yes; I fear that that is the situation. I have just had a talk with the outlaw, who called me up by wireless from nowhere and demanded $10,000,000 ransom."
"Ten million dollars!" cried the commissioner.
"Yes, $10,000,000," Mr. Grayman responded testily. "Do you think that that would break me, or do you think that my daughter is not worth it?"
Mr. Grayman's irritation arose from the remembrance of Payton's insolent tones as he had made the demand, and the commissioner winced at his angry glance. Then he begged pardon, explaining that such sums were unusual in his arithmetic. Mr. Grayman was mollified and proceeded to tell the story of the conversation by wireless.
"And now I think we've got him," he wound up.
"I'm not so sure," replied the commissioner, who had recovered his aplomb. "Alfonso Payton is the skillfulest crook alive. He gave you 'in the air' for location and told you to respond 'undirected,' didn't he?"
"Well." he always does. "You see, this wireless telegraph and telephone business is an enormously powerful lever in his hands. In former times kidnappers had to write letters, and letters can be traced, but Payton carries his victims off in a swift aero that nobody has ever been able to follow—a perfect witch of a thing, according to all reports—and then he talks ransom with their friends from heaven knows where. He leaves no track and no clues in the air. I've never had to deal with him myself, for this is the first time that he has ventured into New York, but I've heard all about him from different parts of the country."
"He gave me a precise address where to meet him," said Grayman.
"And do you think you'll catch him there?"
"How can he hope to get the money if he doesn't meet me?"
"Ah, I see that you are not up to the tricks of these crooks. Payton will watch the place from his aero like a hawk. If he sees any signs of a trap you might as well try to catch a bird by putting salt on its tail."
"What then? Would you have me tamely pay over $10,000,000 and not try to catch the wretch?"
"I don't say that," the commissioner responded thoughtfully. "But if it were an ordinary sum I might."
"Humph!" exclaimed Mr. Grayman. "Then you won't try to help me?"
"On the contrary, I will. But we have got to go to work with extreme caution."
"Tell me your plan, then."
"I've got no plan yet. It needs thinking over."
"Think quick, then, and you can name your price if you show me a way to get this infamous reprobate into my power. But before and above all I must have my daughter safe in my hands."
"That's just the difficulty. You have two days, you say. Tribes Hill is within four hours journey by rail from New York. Give me until tomorrow to arrange my plan."
Mr. Grayman curbed his impatience and assented.
"Remember, absolute secrecy," he said.
"I shall remember," the commissioner replied "Expect me tomorrow at noon, and if human ingenuity can trap Alfonso Payton I shall have him under lock and key within forty-eight hours."
MISS GRAYMAN was the first to awake on the morning following their arrival at Pay ton's mysterious lodge, and immediately she called Susan.
"I am so in hopes that my friends have arrived," she said "I want to get downstairs as soon as possible."
Susan hastily dressed herself, her mistress in her impatience performing her toilet unaided, and then they descended.
It was not much after 5 o'clock, but Payton, as usual, met them in the hall.
"Please send Susan back at once to get your wraps. Miss Grayman," he said. "It is cold this morning, but you will enjoy a spin on the water to give you an appetite for breakfast."
"But my friends?"
"Oh, not so early!" he said, laughing. "They have laid up for the night, not being as familiar with the woods as I am, but they'll be along in the course of the morning. Send, I beg you, for your wraps. You cannot divine how charming the woods are at this hour. Every bird is awake, and the trout are leaping for joy."
Miss Grayman concealed her disappointment and sent Susan for the wraps. Once more in Payton's company, she felt her spirits revive. He was more entertaining than ever. And the air, the water and the forest were equally delightful—so cool, fresh, fragrant and musical. It was a new life for Miss Grayman, and she began to feel the zest of it. Her thought of yesterday came to her again, and once more her face flushed.
If her friends really had intended to throw her into the company of Commodore Brown and get her interested in him in this unconventional way before a formal presentation she was hardly disposed to find fault with them for the indiscretion.
He paddled them up the stream to a pool below the rapids. The trout were flashing on all sides in the bright morning air, and here and there along the shore strange birds rose and fluttered off at their approach.
They landed in a little bight among the rocks and stepped out on the elastic bed of brown pine-needles.
"See here," and he pointed to a depression alongside a huge stump; "a bear slept there last night."
"Yes. Look; here are some of its hairs. And just come this way a bit," and he approached a sandy spot on the shore. "Do you see those hoof-prints? Three deer have taken a drink here before you were up."
"Oh, I should so love to see a real wild deer!"
"Then perhaps I'll show you one before you are a day older. And if you are skilful in the sports of Diana we may have some venison of your killing."
"I believe I can fire a gun without shutting my eyes," said Miss Grayman, laughing. "But of course we shall postpone the proof until the arrival of the others."
"Of course, and they ought to arrive at any moment now."
Upon their return one of the men she had seen on the Chameleon approached and handed a slip of paper to Payton. He read it and, frowning, snapped his fingers, exclaiming, half under his breath: "By Jove, that's really too bad! I am sorry to have to announce a slight mishap, which, while it accounts for the delay of our friends, also makes it certain that they cannot reach us this morning."
The blood fled from Miss Grayman's face. She felt an inexplicable premonition of evil.
"Oh, don't let it distress you." said Payton cheeringly. "Here, please read this dispatch, just come by wireless. I have electric communication with all parts, so we are not lost you see."
He held the paper before her, covering the lower corner where the signature would be with his thumb.
"The secret isn't open yet you know," he said with a deprecatory smile, "and of course I can't let you see the name."
BROWN, CAMP BEAR:
AERO BROKE DOWN NEAR PETTYTOWN. BRING REPAIR TOOLS. ALL SEND GREETINGS A REGRETS TO MISS GRAYMAN.
As he finished he cunningly and as if totally unaware slipped aside the thumb, and she saw that it has covered the name "Mitchell."
"Sorry my pledge compels me to conceal the signature," he said, folding the paper. "You see, it will be necessary for me to go to the rescue. I would by all means have you go along in order that you might the sooner meet your friends; but unfortunately, I shall have to take all my available men and some machinery so that the Chameleon will be loaded to her limit So for a few hours you will be free from my attentions, which for my part I deeply regret. But you will find Mrs. Williams most entertaining in her way. And in the library there is a stock of the latest novels."
At first Miss Grayman did not know what to reply, the thing was so unexpected. It was really the Mitchells of Washington, then, who were at the bottom of this affair, and she wondered that she bad not thought of them at the very first, for now she recalled how the two Mitchell girls and their brother were always engaged in some practical joke on their friends with a pleasant ending.
They must have written to her father, letting him into the secret and, knowing his dislike to having her long out of his sight she felt sure that he was one of the party on the disabled aero.
"Oh, go by all means," she said. "We shall get along very well in this delightful place, provided," she added archly, "that that bear doesn't come this way."
"No fear," said Payton, laughing and secretly rejoicing to see how well everything played into his hands. "Bears never venture near the lodge. Then there is Indian John, who is a dead shot—to say nothing of Mrs. Williams, the two chambermaids and the waiters. So you will have a garrison capable cf withstanding a regular siege by the bears."
As soon as the breakfast was finished Payton took his leave, and the aero, rising gracefully, floated off over the trees and disappeared.
Miss Grayman was now filled with agreeable anticipation. In a few hours she was sure that she should see her father.
Miss Grayman felt that she could paddle the canoe well enough, and accordingly, after they had enjoyed for an hour the scene from the veranda, she and Susan embarked.
Mrs. Williams ran down to the landing, offering to take the paddle or to send for Indian John, but Miss Grayman declined all assistance.
When they had entered the inlet and were out of view of the lodge Miss Grayman turned to the shore, and they disembarked in a delightful little cove overhung with pendulous branches beside an enormous lichen-covered rock which she had noticed and admired during their former trip. Here they sat down on the sweet-scented moss and chatted.
"I'd like to know where Pettytown is," said Miss Grayman. "I never heard of the place before. I suppose it is some little backwoods town. Commodore Brown said he could get there in an hour and a half, and I suppose that means that it is at least 150 miles away. We're somewhere in New York state, I think, and I am still inclined to believe that it is the Adirondacks. But what's the use of guessing? We shall know in a few hours. Lets take a stroll. There seems to be a kind of path here. Perhaps we shall discover something interesting."
"But it might have been made by the bear," said Susan in alarm.
"Oh, I'm not much afraid of bears. Commodore Brown said that they were not dangerous. Indeed. I'd really like to see one. The bears in the zoological gardens never interested me, but here it's different—here where they live. And just think, we may see a deer! Come on, and don't be afraid. I'll go ahead."
Suddenly, as they entered a little intervale where the ground was more solid, a curious noise drew their startled eyes to a huge animal which stood regarding them. Its height seemed prodigious, and its huge, long-nosed head was crowned with, enormous horns. Its eyes glared as it stamped fiercely with its forefoot.
"I believe it's a moose," whispered Miss Grayman, "and I've heard that moose are dangerous."
This one certainly looked dangerous, and the girls were petrified with fear as it advanced a few steps toward them. They stood fast simply because they were unable to move a muscle. The animal stamped savagely again, glared at them for a moment and then, apparently changing its mind, turned and trotted awkwardly away until it had disappeared in the forest.
"Oh, do let's go back," said Susan, shivering with fright "What an awful beast!"
But Miss Grayman's courage had returned with the disappearance of the danger, and she insisted upon pushing ahead a little farther.
"Look! There yonder are some beautiful red flowers," she said, "and I must have them. Don't you see, these animals are not dangerous, after all? Come, and we'll turn back as soon as I get the flowers."
When they reached the spot that she had indicated they saw ahead another comparatively open place, and immediately Miss Grayman exclaimed: "What in the world does that mean, I wonder? Somebody has been digging here? And there's a pickaxe; at least that's what I think they call it."
She pointed to a spot under a great hemlock where the ground had been turned up. The work was either very fresh or unfinished and, as she had said, a pickaxe leaned against the trunk of the tree.
"We must see what it is," said Miss Grayman, her curiosity singularly awakened.
But at this moment a crackling in the bushes sounded behind them. Greatly startled, they stopped in their tracks and looked fearfully around. Nothing was in sight butt he sounds became louder and nearer.
"Oh, good Lord!" cried Susan, nearly sinking to the ground. "That terrible beast has been circling round and is going to run at us again!"
Miss Grayman felt her courage also ooze away, but to their partial relief Indian John appeared, running after them and waving his hands as if in warning.
"Go!" he exclaimed in a guttural voice and with a look that was by no means reassuring. "Must not come here! Big bears here! Eat you!"
As he spoke he laid his brown hand on Miss Grayman's shoulder. Indignantly she shook it off. A placating smile came over the Indian's features, but he continued his insistence and, finally placing himself in front of the girls, pushed them back.
"Must go!" he repeated. "Can't stay here! Much danger! Much bear! Go, quick!"
"What have they been digging here for if there is danger?"
Indian John's face assumed a most menacing expression, and he exclaimed fiercely, "Go, go!"
He no longer hesitated to lay his hands upon them, and they were powerless in his grasp. Besides, his mere look now terrified them.
A she hurried them along he suddenly asked, "What here for?"
"Oh, I have only been gathering flowers!" replied Miss Grayman, now desirous to pacify him. "Look at them," and she showed those that she had collected.
The Indian scarcely glanced at them. "Plenty flowers," he said, "near lodge! Dangerous to come here. Bad bears."
Then he urged them on still faster, and before they were aware of their approach to the stream they found themselves beside the canoe. Indian John unceremoniously pushed them in and without another word took the paddle and carried them swiftly back to the lodge.
Mrs. Williams hurried down to meet them, while the two women stood in the kitchen door curiously regarding them.
"Oh, dear," she said; "I have been so alarmed on your account! Indian John came and told me that he had seen the canoe on the shore of the creek and your tracks leading off into the wilderness. If was so afraid that you would be lost, and the bears back in the woods are very dangerous. I sent him after you as fast as he could run. I'm so glad that you're back safe."
"Indian John has been very rude," said Miss Grayman.
"But, please. Miss Grayman, don't blame him," protested Mrs. Williams. "He is only an Indian, and he was acting under orders that were intended for your safety. Dear me! If you had been killed, what should I have said when Commodore Brown and his friends returned?"
The good lady actually shed a few tears at this terrible thought But she was not so perfect a dissembler as her master, and Miss Grayman still had doubts. Her suspicions, once aroused, were not to be so easily put aside.
"What are they digging out there in the woods for?" she asked. Mrs. Williams was not adroit enough to conceal the startled look that flashed over her face, but in a moment she said, with assumed concern: "Why, Miss Grayman! Did you go as far ax that? It's the place where they've been burying the carcass of an immense bear that one of the men shot the day before yesterday. The skin is In the drying shed now. Indeed, you were in danger!"
Miss Grayman only tossed her head. She was getting more and more suspicious, and yet without any definite ground that she could explain to herself. Why should the fact that somebody had been digging in the woods concern her? She couldn't tell, and yet somehow she couldn't help thinking about it. It was a strange place for such a thing to be. If she had known what that digging meant! She did not even guess, and yet her woman's instinct had warned her that something wrong lurked there.
"Come," she said to Susan; "we'll go to our rooms, where we shall be safe, since the forest is so dangerous."
And without another word she left the crestfallen Mrs. Williams and ascended to her apartments. Once there, she sat down and tried to think it out. Why had she been so disturbed in mind? She couldn't tell—it was all too confused and indefinite. Then the thought of her friends recurred, and she glanced at her watch. It was after 1 o'clock.
"Good gracious!" she exclaimed, springing to her feet "They ought to be here now. They may arrive at any moment."
And she threw open the window. But her watching was in vain, and in a little while Mrs. Williams knocked at her door and announced that the mid-day meal was on the table.
"It must be a great strain on your patience that they do not come," she said, "and it is dreadfully annoying. But sometimes when an aero breaks down it takes a long time for repairs. Commodore Brown had an accident happen to the Chameleon a few weeks ago, and they were two days fixing it up."
"Indeed," said Miss Grayman, "I hope they won't be so long this time. But, tell me, why do they call the aero the Chameleon? It's a queer name, and yet it seems to me I have heard it before."
"I don't know really," replied Mrs. Williams, a shade of anxiety flitting across her face, while she thought to herself, "What a fool I have been!" Then she continued quickly: "Commodore Brown Is a very romantic man, full of the most beautiful ideas. I suppose it was one of his fancies. You should see what delightful friends he has who come here—ladies and gentlemen—and I tell you they make the place gay."
Miss Grayman's suspicions were lulled again, and they finished the meal in good spirits, for Mrs. Williams, circling around the table and ordering all sorts of dainties for Miss Grayman, proved herself at the same time almost as entertaining a story-teller as Payton himself.
But in the afternoon trouble came again. Weary of waiting, Miss Grayman had proposed to Susan another trip in the canoe. But to her intense displeasure Mrs. Williams insisted that either she or Indian John should take the paddle.
"But I can paddle myself, as you very well know," said Miss Grayman.
"Yes," was the reply, "but there is always danger—great danger. I should not be doing my duty either by you or by Commodore Brown, who has left you in my care."
"Very well," returned Miss Grayman, with dignity. "If I am a prisoner I suppose at least that I can safely be trusted in my room."
And she walked back to the lodge, followed by Susan, and went straight upstairs.
"Please don't be offended," protested Mrs. Williams, following them to the door. "I only—"
But the door was shut in her face, and then Miss Grayman threw herself into a chair and, girl-like, began to cry.
Yet, poor child, even now she did not comprehend that she was a prisoner.
IT would be an indictment of the reader's perspicacity to inform him that Payton's story about the breaking down of an imaginary aero and the call to him for aid was pure invention.
It will be remembered that Payton in his wireless telephone conversation with Mr. Grayman had appointed a rendezvous for the second day after that of the discovery of the abduction.
He had no intention of completing the transaction at that meeting —if meeting there should be. As he had said, he would arrange for the payment of the ransom and the surrender of the prisoner to take place elsewhere. That was an invariable feature of Payton's system which served to baffle those who sought to trap him.
His first concern was to get a meeting with the person who was to pay. If he succeeded in that he depended on twenty things to aid him in the subsequent negotiations, his extraordinary cunning and his impressive personality playing the principal parts.
He knew the character of William Grayman and his extreme fondness for his daughter. Of course this last was his best lever. Yet his demand for $10,000,000 was so enormous that he knew it would require all of his matchless dexterity in managing men and in mastering events to enable him to get the money.
To begin with, it was on its face a thing of extreme improbability that the famous billionaire, whose shrewdness was a byword, would trust himself In the hands of an outlaw.
It was also perfectly certain that Grayman would call in the aid of the police. That, however, did not trouble Payton. He had uttered no vain boast when he said that nobody had ever succeeded in running him down, and he had the most excellent reasons for his belief that nobody ever would. The only question in his mind was whether Grayman would go to the rendezvous at all.
Any other man than Payton would have assumed without arguing the matter that Grayman would not go. But Payton was a master reader of human nature. He knew that Grayman would not leave things as they were. He must rescue his daughter.
So he set out in the Chameleon for Tribes Hill, very confident that Mr. Grayman would be there whatever company he might have. In regard to this Payton had means of knowledge, the nature of which will appear later.
Tribes Hill, a place famous in Indian tradition, lies in the old Mohawk territory in Montgomery County, N.Y. The distance between this place and Payton's lodge was great, but Payton had plenty of time at his disposal—and, indeed, time to spare—for the Chameleon was one of the swiftest cracks afly and could, under pressure, make 140 miles an hour. There were few aeros at that time which could keep with sight of her.
So he set out at a leisurely gait, putting the flier in trim for either fighting or running away, as occasion might require.
Nor was Payton mistaken in his reasoning about what Mr. Grayman would do. The New York Commissioner had gone to work with great energy upon his problem, and here is the result of his cogitation as he reported it to Mr. Grayman twenty-four hours after their first conference.
"Mr. Grayman," he said, wearing a satisfied smile as he entered the billionaire's sanctum. "I think that the Sky Pirate has carried his pitcher once too often to the fountain in venturing into New York. I believe that we shall get him."
"Well, well!" exclaimed Grayman testily. "You seem to have changed your mind. What is your plan?"
"It's just this," said the Commissioner. "I have been with four of my men to Tribes Hill to look over the ground. Payton has been cunning, I must allow, but he has not hitherto had to deal with the metropolitan police. The bluff where he has promised to meet you is bare and unapproachable except under Payton's eyes. But there are woods not far off—"
"Wait a moment," said the billionaire. "You seem to be assuming that I am fool enough to put myself into his grasp. You speak of his meeting me. It is you that he must meet."
The Commissioner sat down and assumed a more confidential tone.
"Mr. Grayman," he said, "if you do not go, nothing can be done. No make-up to represent you would deceive this fellow. All of these kidnappers are too sharp for that, and he above all. If you are not willing to go I shall have to throw up the job."
Mr. Grayman made no immediate reply, but sat meditating.
"It Is true," he said at last, "that I have never allowed an affair of this importance to be conducted without my personal presence. But could I not be concealed somewhere near?"
"Impossible! You must be there openly or not at all. But let me assure you that you have nothing to fear. We can protect you."
"Suppose he should attempt to run way with me also! Do you know what that means?"
"I know perfectly well, Mr. Grayman, the importance of your person. But in this case you would have nothing to fear. Payton would never dream of running away with you. What would he gain by that, supposing he could do it with me and my men there ready to interfere? Nothing whatever. It would be the ruin of his negotiation."
"Well," Grayman said, "perhaps you are right. But, come, tell me your plan and then I'll see."
"As I was just telling you," resumed the commissioner, "there are woods not far from the bluff in which men and aeros can be concealed. Now, my plan is to take four swift police department fliers and hide them in those woods. Moreover, I shall have a dozen sharp-shooters concealed in the treetops. He will drop down over the bluff in his aero and keep it hovering near during his conference with you. Then, when you have him engaged in talk, my men will drop him in his tracks."
"Hold on!" said Mr. Grayman. "You are going too fast now. If you kill Payton, how are you going to find my daughter?"
"By capturing the Chameleon and compelling his men to reveal his hiding-places."
"But perhaps they won't talk."
"We have means of making men talk," said the Commissioner grimly.
"Perhaps you have, but I don't like that part of the plan. It is too dangerous for my daughter. She would be killed for vengeance. But the aeros are good. Go on with that part of the scheme, keeping your sharp-shooters for an emergency. But why not take more aeros? How many has the police department?"
"Eight. But it would be impossible to conceal more than four of them. I can dispose four in such a way as to cut off retreat in every direction. The aeros, with power up, will be hidden just in the tops of the trees."
"You know we must not fall," Grayman said.
"We shall not fail," was the confident reply.
Still, Mr. Grayman was half disposed to reject the scheme and try something else. But he could think of nothing else, and then his daughter's absence and her imminent danger smote his heart.
"Done!" he said decisively. "I'll try it!"
"Then," remarked the commissioner, much gratified. "I'll send off the aeros tonight in order that nobody shall witness their arrival. Their commanders, who are the men that accompanied me to Tribes Hill, know exactly what to do. They will prepare the ambush and be ready for work in the morning."
"How many men will you have in all?"
"Thirty-six will go in the aeros, of whom twenty-eight will be armed to the teeth. The twelve marksmen will be sent on by train in various disguises. We ourselves will take the midnight express for Albany, and a local train will bring us to Tribes Hill early in the morning."
The commissioner had learned that the full complement of the Chameleon, including her commander, was ten men. Accordingly he could count upon having three to one in a fight.
Thus the matter was arranged. When William Grayman said "Yes" to any proposition, he wanted it carried into effect instantly.
No time was lost in concealing the fliers among the tops of the trees in the neighboring woods on both sides of the Mohawk.
Once in position they were anchored with guys, which could be severed in an instant, and were disguised with leaves and fresh-cut branches to conceal them from prying eyes. They were so placed as not to be hampered in getting away at full speed, and their high-power drivers could be turned on almost instantaneously. Of the crew of nine men which each aero carried, seven were there for fighting purposes only, and they carried automatic arms of the latest pattern. The other two were engineer and steersman. By judicious selection of positions an aero was stationed at each point of the compass, their average distance from the bluff where the meeting was to take place hardly exceeding a quarter of a mile. The commissioner's principal dependence was on surprise. He calculated that Payton, seeing no aero near would boldly descend to the bluff and fall straight into the trap, because the police, getting into motion simultaneously at a signal, would be upon him from all sides before he was aware of their presence.
The signal was to be a white handkerchief waved by the commissioner himself from a point which he had selected not far from the bluff and which could be seen from each of the aeros. One thing which the commissioner had not thought of arranging— and it was a capital error, as the sequel will show—was to so place the aeros that their crews would have one another always in view. As it turned out, when they were once in position they could not see each other at all.
Dawn comes early in June, and the commanders of the fliers had hardly completed their arrangements and set down for a long wait when a pale streak illumined the heavens in the east.
"Boys, keep quiet now," said the captain in charge of the aero which was stationed on the south side of the Mohawk, farthest west. "Daylight, is beginning, and there must be no noise."
It was Captain Patrick Phelan, one of the bravest officers on the New York force.
Captain Phelan's men had obeyed his injunction and were keeping quiet. Most of them were lying on their backs looking up through the narrow interstices in the canopy of leaves with which they had covered their craft. Their arms were conveniently stacked in the center of the deck.
Suddenly a shadow fell over them. Before a man could count five the branches were brushed away and an aero dropped beside them. In a moment nine men stood in a circle around their stacked arms, with pistols leveled at their heads. Half of the policemen were not yet on their feet.
"This game is up, boys," said, the leader of the boarders. "I'll blow out the brains of the first man that utters a sound. Up with your hands."
Captain Phelan half drew a pistol from his holster, when the weapon in the hand of the leader who had spoken flashed, with the wicked smack of the modern arm of precision, not audible a dozen rods away, and the gallant officer fell with a bullet through his brain.
It was all over in half a minute. Captain Phelan was dead, and his eight men, including the engineer and steersman, were helpless prisoners on their own deck. The element of surprise had played even a greater part in this brief tragedy than the commissioner had expected. Alfonso Payton had begun to turn the tables on his foes with his usual élan. But as yet he had by no means finished the job.
"Aboard!" he commanded sharply.
His men sprang upon the Chameleon, and she was away in a flash. Running low again, she headed down the river for a second piece of woods, where another of the hidden aeros floated among the treetops. Here a similar scene was enacted. Even more utterly unprepared than their unfortunate comrades, these policemen were taking an early breakfast. Some of them were knocked over with the cups in heir hands.
Captain Billings, their commander, was seized from behind by Payton before he even knew that an enemy was aboard. Not a man had a weapon ready, and not a shot was fired. The captives were gagged and bound like the others, and the Chameleon was off again for her third victim, on the north side of the river.
This time there was a fight, but a most unequal one, because the surprise was virtually as complete as in the first two cases. The Chameleon had indeed been seen a quarter of a minute before the attack, but unluckily she was mistaken by Captain Campbell for one of his consorts, and while he was beating his brains to understand what she wanted there Payton and his men leaped aboard almost unopposed.
Even then Campbell probably never comprehended that it was the famous Sky Pirate who had attacked him. He had no time to think of anything except the fact there was an attack, and, having his pistol in his hand, he shot the first man who put his foot on his deck.
Immediately a bullet passed through is own heart. His men rallied gallantly, but only three of them succeeded in getting hold of their weapons.
Payton pushed the assault like a demon. His pistol leveled two of these men with shots so nearly simultaneous that their reports blended. The third was brained with his own weapon by one of the Chameleon's crew, who showed the strength and agility of an acrobat. In the meantime the other five, being unable to reach their weapons, were easily overpowered, gagged and bound.
Not a sound of this struggle reached the fourth aero, something less than a third of a mile distant. Indeed, the shots could not have been heard as far as the edge of the little woodland in which the fight occurred. This, by the way, is one of the disadvantages of our modern firearms—if they do not betray one's location to the enemy, they equally fail to convey information to friends.
The fourth aero, under Captain Burns, was situated westward from the bluff. Payton once more ran the Chameleon near the ground until he reached the edge of the woods, then rose quickly above the trees, located his prey in spite of its fancied security and was upon it without the slightest warning having been given. Here again the men were at breakfast, and the scene was almost a duplicate of that enacted at the second assault.
In every case Payton was careful to leave the little flags, which were to indicate to the commissioner the presence of his aeros at their prescribed posts, undisturbed.
No sooner were Burns and his men secured than the Chameleon rose almost vertically in the air to a great elevation and then, assuming her sky-blue dress, for the sun was rising in a cloudless heaven, soared off southward. When he had got well beyond eye shot from Tribes Hill Payton ordered the aero to hover over the farm-checkered township of Florida and sent his men to breakfast.
"A pretty good morning's performance," he said, laughing in his hearty manner and addressing the steersman, who, in each case, had been the only one left in charge of the Chameleon, all the others being engaged In the fight and capture.
The steersman's only reply was a delighted grin. Like his comrades, he fairly worshiped his peerless commander.
"So this is the metropolitan police!" Payton continued with a sneer. "And their commissioner thought that he could take me in! I'm half inclined to give him a taste of my jug, when he arrives with his billionaire client."
The fact was, as subsequent investigation fully developed and as I have already hinted, that Payton knew the commissioner's plan through the medium of his spies, whom he had everywhere in wireless communication. So, instead of being trapped, he had himself turned trapper. Now he only awaited the arrival of the commissioner and Mr. Grayman to complete his achievement.
He knew the hour when the local train would arrive from Albany, and he took his measures accordingly.
MR. GRAYMAN and the commissioner were impatient because their train was a quarter of an hour late in leaving Albany. Mr. Grayman's faith in his police ally had been growing, and he now looked upon him as an able detective and a man of resources. His only anxiety was lest Payton, feeling sure that he had told the police, would stay away. The commissioner had succeeded in driving from the billionaire's mind the fear of injury to his daughter in case Payton suspected treachery.
"They always make such threats," he said, "but they never execute them, because why—it wouldn't pay. They know their chances for a ransom would be gone then. You may try to trap a kidnapper as often as you like, but he will never resent it until every possible card has been played. Payton has got a hundred cards up his sleeve."
Arrived at the station for Tribes Hill, they had a long uphill walk to the scene of the rendezvous. The commissioner's sharpshooters in all sorts of disguises popped up here and there and were sent to hiding-places in the neighborhood. As they approached the bluff the commissioner parted from his employer.
"I'll leave you here," he said, "and go to my station over yonder, from which, as I told you, I will make the signal. We may have to wait some time, but I reckon that he'll be along early, and won't he be surprised, though! Occupy his attention as long as possible. Promise him anything and everything. You can afford it, you know."
The commissioner laughed heartily at his own pleasantry, and the two separated for their respective stations.
When Mr. Grayman was alone the affair began to assume a different aspect Once more his shrewd doubts returned, and he said to himself that he must have become an infernal idiot to expose his life and liberty in this manner—he, William Grayman, with his billions, to walk into the jaws of a tiger with his eyes open to the danger!
Suddenly a voice sounded over his head. Glancing upward, Mr. Grayman was almost startled out of his senses by seeing right above him an aero, which was swiftly descending. In another minute it swept gracefully to the ground, and an elegantly attired gentleman calmly stepped down from its flat deck and, politely removing his hat, advanced with outstretched hand and winning smile toward the billionaire.
"Good morning, Mr. Grayman," he said in a voice of wonderful sweetness. "I'm delighted to see you here. I am Captain Alfonso Payton, with whom you had a distant conversation the day before yesterday. I am happy to observe how rigidly you keep your appointments, although that does not surprise me, for, of course, like all the world, I know your business reputation. But you do me great honor, sir."
Mr. Grayman, like every person who had ever come into contact with Payton, felt instantly the of magnetism of his presence and manner. Mr. Grayman unconsciously took the offered hand, and Payton gave him a cordial pressure of the fingers and smiled with an increase of affability, showing his beautiful teeth.
"What a delightful morning we, have," he remarked, with the easy grace of a man used to the world's best things and glancing around him with looks of admiration. "So cool, so fragrant with the breath of the fields! But I think it will turn out a hot day."
"Yes, I think so," Mr. Grayman replied, so completely surprised that he hardly knew what he was saying. "I—"
"Ah, doubtless you would wish to hear from your daughter?" Payton went on, still smiling. "I am happy to you tell you that she is enjoying excellent health and spirits in a most charming locality. I left her only this morning, and, knowing that I was to meet you she sent her love to her father, whom she hopes to see soon, as she will if he remains reasonable."
These last words Payton with spoke with a sharp emphasis.
"We must come to business, Mr. Grayman," Payton continued in an increasingly icy tone. "You are used to plain, quick talk. So am I. You have promised me $10,000,000. Your promise is as good as a government bond. When will you have the money ready? When I get it you get Helen. But you made me another promise, at least by implication, and implied promises when the parties understand one another are as good as any. You promised not to try to betray me. That promise you have not kept, and you know what I told you."
Mr. Grayman between surprise, anger and anxiety lost his self command. Then the thought of the commissioner and the aeros at hand flashed across his mind and restored his confidence. He must carry out the plan now. He was in for it.
"I did not—" he began, but Payton interrupted him, thundering:
"Who is your friend under the trees there? What is he waving his handkerchief for?"
Mr. Grayman glanced toward the place where the commissioner stood and saw a flash of white. Ah, the signal at last! All his habitual coolness came back. The aeros would be here in a minute! He must simply detain Payton a little longer.
"Well, out with it, Mr. Grayman—who is your friend?" sneered the pirate.
Without replying, Grayman turned round on his heel, expecting to see the police aeros swiftly approaching. But he saw nothing except the commissioner frantically waving his handkerchief.
"They're not coming," said Payton derisively. "The commissioner may wave his arms off, but you'll never see his aeros. I fixed them—all four—this morning, and now I guess I shall have to fix you!"
As he spoke he lifted his hand.
Immediately the Chameleon bore round and swept down toward them in a beautiful curve. As she grazed the ground, two men sprang off, and, before he could have offered a show of resistance, Mr. Grayman was seized, lifted from his feet and carried aboard. Payton followed at his heels, and a moment later they were circling upward.
That which Mr. Grayman's good sense had all the while been telling him would happen had happened. It may or may not appear strange that his first impression was not of fear, but of shame because he had made an ass of himself.
When the unhappy commissioner, from his post of observation, saw this maneuver, which belied all his predictions and promises to Mr. Grayman, he nearly went crazy. It was utterly beyond his comprehension why the aeros did not move. Then he cursed the marksmen, who also had done nothing.
"Shoot, curse you, shoots! Pepper that aero!" he now yelled. "Come out of cover and shoot!"
The men came running from various directions and began to fire wildly. If they had been specially trained to shoot birds on the wing with rifle bullets they might have stood a chance of hitting the Chameleon. Payton laughed loudly at them, and, to show his contempt, circled around without trying to get away.
"Take your time, boys!" he shouted. "You'll Improve with practice. Meanwhile I'll show you how."
As he spoke a thin blue flame leaped from the Chameleon and one of the men dropped in his tracks. Another flash with the same result. The sharp-shooters ran for cover. Then the aero turned and swooped down toward the commissioner. Suddenly pausing a few yards above his head, Payton leaned over the side and said: "My best respects to you, Mr. Commissioner Braman. When you lay another trap for Alfonso Payton just fetch the rest of your metropolitan police to see the fun. Goodby!"
The enraged commissioner drew his pistol and fired point-blank at Payton. The bullet whistled close by head, but he only laughed and shouted back, "A pretty good shot, commissioner!" Then he added more severely, "I could lay you in your tracks, but you are a brave man, though no fox hunter, and I'll off this time."
The chief's reply was two more shots, which also missed their mark. Payton laughed again, and the Chameleon, making a sudden turn, soared aloft and then darted off westward with her billionaire prisoner.
MEANWHILE what was happening to William Grayman?
The Chameleon, as I have said, speeded westward upon leaving Tribes Hill, and Payton took good care to rise so high and to disguise the aero so well with appropriate color that probably not an eye caught Sight of her after she quitted the scene of the encounter with the police.
As soon as Mr. Grayman had been carried aboard he was put into the little room that had been occupied by his daughter, and the door was locked upon him.
"I had to venture it," he soliloquized. "I don't see that there was any other way—and yet I was a fool! And what have I gained? Almost it would have been better to pay the money and let the scoundrel go if he surrendered Helen safe."
Then he tried to imagine what Payton would do. Would he keep him prisoner? But what could he gain by that? The billionaire knew well enough that there was nobody who would pay $10,000,000 to have him released. Was his life in danger? No he did not think so. The commissioner's reasoning on that point seemed conclusive. All the danger centered on his daughter. At moments he debated whether he should not now offer to pay the ransom and have done with it. He could afford it—enormous though the sum was. He had cleared fifty millions during the past year.
While he was turning the subject In his mind the door opened and Payton entered.
"Mr. Grayman," he said in his most winning manner. "I give you my word as a gentleman that I am inexpressibly pained by what has occurred. It was not my intention to carry you off or to offer you any indignity whatever, but you know as well as I do that I was compelled."
"You promised me immunity if I would meet you," interposed Mr. Grayman.
"And you broke the convention by coming to the rendezvous under the secret escort of a whole fleet," laughed Payton. "But for my means of learning the designs of my enemies I should have been beautifully trapped. But now I let that pass. I am willing to overlook it in view of your inexperience in such affairs as this. You are now, by force of circumstances, in a position where it will be impossible for any further interruption of our private conversation to occur, and we may proceed with the business In the most amicable spirit."
The easy self assurance of this speech and Payton's cool assumption that he was the injured party quite dumfounded Mr. Grayman. He saw the game well enough, but he did not see a way to meet it. He felt a desire to throttle the fellow.
"Where is my daughter?" he demanded.
Payton smiled provokingly as he replied, "She is where no police in the world can ever find her and where she will remain in my charge until the ransom is paid or until—"
Payton purposely did not finish the sentence, but remained silent, looking straight into the billionaire's eyes. If it was his plan to shake his prisoner's nerves he was fairly successful.
"I do not want any harm to come to you or your daughter, but I must have the ten millions. You have the money; I have the girl. You can afford the price, and she is worth it to you or to any man. Your life is in my hands, there's no denying that. But I don't want it. I want only the money."
Mr. Grayman saw that be must temporize somehow. The first thing was to get himself out of this fix. He would try promises, and if worst came to worst he would even pay the ransom, trusting to get it back again when Payton should finally be caught.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"I want you to promise me on your honor as a gentleman and a banker to meet me with the money at a place which I shall designate later, and where Helen shall be surrendered to you if you faithfully keep your engagement. Will you do that?'
"Suppose I refuse?"
Payton's lip curled! "Then you will not return to New York!"
"Suppose I say 'Yes?'"
"Then I will carry you home myself with the Chameleon."
Mr. Grayman reflected. "What harm in promising?" he asked himself. "A promise extorted under compulsion is null. It will simply give me another chance. Once at liberty I'll not be fool enough to put myself in his power again. Some way will open up—"
"Well," he said aloud, "then I'll say 'Yes.'"
"Good!" responded Payton. "Splendid good sense! I'll give the order to turn New Yorkward at once."
Payton bad read the billionaire's thoughts as if they had been printed. He knew that at present Mr. Grayman had no intention of meeting him on the terms he had prescribed, but would once more try to entrap him. Yet unless he released him now he could never hope for the money.
He rose and left Grayman alone in the cabin, but within a few minutes returned, saying, "Come out, Mr. Grayman, and convince yourself that you are homeward bound."
Rather unwillingly the billionaire ventured upon the deck. They were still very high, but were flying southward at great speed.
"Those are the Catskills away over yonder," said Payton, pointing. "I could land you in New York in a little over an hour, but I prefer to visit the metropolis after nightfall. It is now only one o'clock. We'll take lunch and then circle about a bit and see the country. If you like we can run out to Niagara and see how the great cataract looks to a bird."
"But my daughter!" cried the billionaire eagerly. "Since you will have the money anyway and the speed of your craft is so great take me to her."
"She is in no danger. She doesn't even know she Is a prisoner," replied the sky pirate lightly. "Why alarm her now?"
Late that evening passers-by in Fifth Avenue were startled by seeing a huge aero glide silently over their heads. Shortly afterward the Chameleon settled gently upon the grass in a park glade, and Payton, without any sign of nervousness or hurry, ceremoniously dismissed his guest in the very face of a policeman.
"Goodby and au revoir," said Payton, wringing Mr. Grayman's unwilling band. "You'll hear from me in a few days. Don't forget your promise or the need that your daughter has of the aid which you alone can give her."
Without replying, Mr. Grayman turned on his heel and walked rapidly away. Payton remained on the ground regarding his retreating form with a disdainful smile. The policeman was rapidly approaching, but Payton made no move.
"Here, you!" said the officer, seizing Payton by the arm. "I arrest you. What are you doing with an aero in the park?"
"Looking for squirrels," said Payton. "Looking for—See here, young fellow, come with me."
"Aren't you going to arrest the aero?" asked Payton.
The question upset the policeman for a moment. Then, thinking of no better answer, he raised his club. In the fraction of a second he was sprawling on the grass and Payton had leaped aboard the aero. As the policeman jumped to his feet and blew his whistle the Chameleon whirled up into the darkness and disappeared.
The reader will perhaps remember that when Payton carried off Miss Grayman he re-entered her room on the pretense of extinguishing the light. What he really did was to fumble in her writing desk and take possession of a bundle of letters, which he thrust into his pocket. Among the letters was one written to Helen by her father during one of his infrequent absences. How he employed this will appear presently.
Payton had no sooner performed his characteristic exploit of landing Mr. Grayman in the heart of New York with the Chameleon than he set out with full speed for his lodge in the wilderness.
We left Miss Grayman weeping in her room at the lodge over her vexation at 'Mrs. Williams' conduct, emphasized by her own undefined suspicions. Susan was greatly puzzled, but very sympathetic.
"Oh, Miss Helen," she said, "please don't cry. They cannot be long delayed; they, are sure to come."
"I wish I could get away from here," Miss Grayman responded, wiping her eyes. "I don't know what ails me, but—but sometimes I feel that they may never come. Why does Mrs. Williams treat me so? Why wouldn't she let us go in the canoe? I have such a creepy feeling about that place in the woods."
"Oh, it's your fancy, Miss Helen. I didn't see anything very strange there. Come, let's go out and sit on the veranda. Perhaps we shall see them returning at any moment."
But Susan was not a true prophet. They descended and went out on the veranda, as she had suggested, but hour after hour passed, and yet they saw no approaching aero.
"Susan, I can endure this no longer!" Helen exclaimed and, re-entering the house, sought the library. It was well-stocked with entertaining literature, and she managed to while away the time until the hour came to retire.
Miss Grayman passed an almost sleepless night and was up early in the morning, calling Susan.
When they descended Mrs. Williams proposed a trip in the canoe, but Miss Grayman declined and after breakfast took a book out on the veranda and tried to read. But she could not fix her attention, and half the time her eyes were blurred with tears.
Suddenly she heard a shout and, glancing up, saw the Chameleon approaching, with Payton on the bow beaming with smiles and gayly waving his hat at her. No sooner had the aero touched down than he ran up to the lodge.
THE reader must not forget that Miss Grayman had no knowledge whatever of the real character of this man. She saw that he was a gentleman by birth and training, she enjoyed the charms of his manners and conversation, and, despite the peculiarity of her situation and the shadowy doubts that had flitted into her mind, she felt no distrust of him personally. On the contrary, his re-appearance seemed like the return of an intimate friend, and she was glad in her heart to see him once more.
"Oh, Miss Grayman," he exclaimed, approaching with outstretched hand, "you cannot know how I have been annoyed by my enforced absence! If there had been anybody here to receive it I should have sent you a dispatch, but"—
"But my friends—my father?" she interrupted.
"I was about to tell you; but, in fact, I have here something better than any explanation I could make. Look at this and then say whether I have not brought some good news." And, laughing, he held up a letter, which he then put into her hands.
Miss Helen Grayman,
At Bear Lodge.
By the hand of Commodore F. Brown.
So ran the superscription, and Miss Grayman's heart bounded on recognizing her father's handwriting. She tore open the envelope and read:
Pettytown. June 25, 1836.
My Very Dear Daughter:
A miserable series of accidents has spoiled the surprise that we had in store for you. It was a foolish piece of business from the start, but I thought that it might give you pleasure, and the Mitchell girls and their brother had their hearts set upon it and gave me no rest until I consented. We intended to meet you at Commodore Brown's lodge; then we were to spend a week fishing and hunting, winding up with a visit to a little Indian village whose inhabitants have long been protégés of Mr. Brown's.
Of course you were astonished to be carried off as you were, and I have been more than astonished at myself for consenting to it, and I should never have done so if I had not known so well the antecedents and character of Frederick Brown. The Mitchells, who are very intimate with him and admire him greatly, have taken it into their heads that you and he ought to be acquainted, and Agnes Mitchell invented what she called "a lovely plan" to bring about the introduction in an "aboriginal manner." I can only say, Helen, that my consent to entrusting you to his charge was wrung from me through my esteem for the young man. We expected, of course, to join you as soon as you arrived at the lodge, but from the start the aero engaged by the Mitchells proved a relatively slow flier, and then came the accident.
Now, you will want to know why I send you a letter instead of coming myself. It is a most extraordinary and provoking series of mischances! When we sent for Brown to come to our aid we supposed that the injury could quickly be repaired. Instead it turns out that it is irreparable except in a shop, and we shall have to send the aero back by train. And then, to cap the climax, when Brown had turned out half his men to make room for us and had embarked us his aero through some fault of the steersman ran into a tree, and we all had a narrow escape. It turned out that the machine was so crippled that only Brown and his engineer could go in her. You are a hundred and fifty miles away in a wilderness with no roads. We do not know where to send for another aero, and, in truth, I should hardly care to entrust myself in one again, and I am distressed to think that you will have to do so In order to return.
But I have every confidence in Mr. Brown, and he assures me that such an accident never occurred to him before and that he can put his aero into perfect shape again with the machinery which he has at the lodge. The upshot is that I and the Mitchells are going to take the first train we can get for New York. Mr. Brown will bring you back as soon as he can repair his aero.
I am glad to learn that Mrs. Williams is at his lodge. She is a worthy woman, reduced in circumstances early in life and formerly housekeeper for the Uphams.
I wish I could be with you for the trout fishing that Frederick tells me about. But this is the last, as it is the first, foolishness of this kind I shall ever engage in. Your very affectionate father,
In reading this letter the poor girl was completely deceived. The resemblance to her sire's writing was so perfect, the manner of addressing her was so exactly in his style, and, moreover, her mental blindness, induced by her own romantic fancies, was so complete that she suspected no imposition.
So she looked up at Payton after reading the letter with beaming eyes and flushed cheeks and said with genuine feeling:
"I thank you most sincerely, Commodore Brown. My father explains the whole affair, and it was very, very good of you to return so quickly in your disabled aero in order to relieve my anxiety. It is a dreadful disappointment, but I am sure the trip has not been without its pleasures for me even if its principal object has been missed."
Payton could hardly contain his delight over the success of his bold ruse. Then he set out to complete his mastery of the situation by entertaining Miss Grayman, cultivating her interest and confidence in himself and keeping her thoughts from dwelling upon her disappointment. Mrs. Williams seized the first opportunity to tell him about the adventure in the woods, and less than an hour after his return Miss Grayman, in gay spirits, accompanied by Susan, embarked with him in the canoe for a visit to the spot where her curiosity and doubts had been excited.
"Mrs. Williams has told me about your fright," he said, "and about her own fright also. The bears are dangerous, and I have ordered Indian John to be on the spot well armed, so if you are still curious about the grave of the big bear we'll go and see it and try to satisfy your curiosity."
Accordingly he took them to the place and showed the spot where the digging had been. It was now carefully covered up with the forest carpet of leaves. This, he explained, had been done in order that wild animals might not dig up the carcass. Then he gave a spirited description of the extraordinary size and fierceness of the (imaginary) bear that had been killed.
"Since we shall be forced to spend a week or ten days here," he said, "I wish you to become acquainted with all the pleasures that the woods afford. I cannot begin to repair the aero for at least three days yet because, as your father may have mentioned, I had to leave all my men but the engineer at Pettytown, and they must reach us by the forest trails. Being born woodsmen and hunters, they can make the distance in about forty hours of steady tramping, not counting the time required for rest and sleep. As soon as they arrive I shall be very busy directing and aiding them, for I have a shop here specially fitted up to repair my aero. In the meanwhile I can devote all my time to trying to make things pleasant for you."
He certainly did make things pleasant. Never had he been so entertaining, so full of interesting stories, so devoted to the comfort and enjoyment of his guests. They boated, fished, hunted, gathered rare flowers and read or chatted on the veranda.
After three days of this kind of life, into which Miss Grayman entered with all the zest of her romantic and enthusiastic nature, Payton announced that his men had arrived. They showed themselves about the lodge, and presently the aero was removed from its customary place and taken into an inclosure partly roofed over, from which the sounds of hammering now began to be heard. Payton seemed to be very busy here during the daytime, but in the evening he was as attentive and as ever.
When this had been going on for a couple of days Payton, with great animation, announced that the repairs to the aero had been so successful that he proposed to make a trial trip.
"I want to be sure of her," he said, "because not for worlds would I run the risk of a second accident with you aboard. So I am going to take her out for a trip of considerable length. I shall run over to a town in Maine, and, as I have some pressing affairs relative to my Indians to attend to, I may be gone for a couple of days. In that time I can make sure whether the aero is really in first rate shape. Since this will delay our final departure I thought that perhaps you would like to drop a line to your father, assuring him of your health and contentment. Of course he will be anxious about you, and the letter would be an agreeable surprise. I could post it, and it would be received at least three days before our return to New York."
As Payton anticipated, the girl eagerly accepted the proposal and Immediately sat down and wrote to her father as follows:
My Own Dear Papa,
I was awfully disappointed over the accident that kept you and the Mitchells away after you had got so near us. It's a dreadful pity that the delightful plan could not be carried out. It was so romantic! But really I have enjoyed my part in it, and I shall enjoy it more since I now know that the whole affair had your approval. I and Susan are in good health and spirits, and Commodore Brown is so entertaining and so attentive, and I am so glad, that you like him and that you think that he has great ability. I have never met a young man with more elegant manners or more intelligent, and then he is an American, and you knew how I detest those foreign dot-hunters. But I must stop, for Mr. Brown is waiting for me. I send all love and hope to see you soon.
Your affectionate daughter.
P.S.—I think that Agnes Mitchell is impertinent, but truly Mr. Brown is very interesting. His father must have been a delightful person. I like such devoted natures. One of the Indians is here.
Miss Grayman felt lonesome when Payton had departed with the Chameleon, but she thought of the pleasure her letter would afford her father. She would have died of mortification and rage if she had known that her messenger was hardly out of sight before he skilfully opened the envelope and read the letter, smiling as he saw how completely it answered his wishes. Then he carefully re-closed and sealed it.
Everything was playing into his hands. To obtain this letter had been the object of his forgery, and he could not himself have written it more to his mind. This was the master card that he had thought of when he had Mr. Grayman on the Chameleon. If he could instill in the father's mind the thought that his daughter was beginning to be deeply interested in the supposed friend who had carried her off he calculated that the fear and anxiety thus awakened would make him willing to come to any terms for her immediate release.
From his spies in Washington he had learned all he needed to know about the Mitchells. As soon as Miss Grayman's letter should be in her father's hands he would be ready for his next stroke.
No pen can suggest the amazement, perplexity, anger and despair of the billionaire when he received Helen's letter bearing the postmark "Charlotte, N.C."
Payton had gone far out of his way to post a letter in order to give a false idea of the direction in which his mysterious lodge lay.
Mr. Grayman had all confidence in his daughter, but he knew her romantic nature, and now she was evidently completely deceived.
He recalled what Payton had told him about Helen's deception concerning his name and character and with a sinking heart he remembered the fellow's handsome face and fascinating speech and bearing. The bare thought of his daughter taking an interest in this unspeakable scoundrel drove him wild.
But the next day came the climax. In opening his mail he found a letter posted at Wheeling, W. Va., Which read thus:
Aero Yacht Chameleon, in the Air.
Mr. William Grayman:
Dear Mr. Grayman:
Since I parted from you in Central Park after our delightful ride together I have made good progress in the esteem of your daughter Helen. It is a great gratification to me that, backed by the powerful approval of her father, I find myself persona grata with the young lady, and I know that I shall grow rapidly in her favor. Indeed, I am become so bold as to entertain hopes the fulfillment of which would give me a place in the world and in society which I could never otherwise have expected to occupy. I am aware that she has written to you, but what she wrote, of course, I do not know, but I have good reason to believe that if I did know I should have no cause to feel disappointed.
Now, my dear Mr. Grayman, it may occur to you that the only way in which you can arrest the current is by keeping your agreement and arranging for the payment of the 10 millions. Only that sum could compensate me for the defeat of hope so brilliant. I trust that you will turn this matter over in your mind with your customary excellence of judgment. I shall call you up and name a place of meeting where we can quietly complete the transaction and effect the transfer.
Very respectfully yours,
It is best to draw the curtain on Mr. Grayman's sanctum after he had read the letter.
ALFONSO PAYTON had played his master card, and if he could judge by Mr. Grayman's conduct hitherto it had an excellent chance of winning. But in William Grayman he had an antagonist who, like himself, had never known final defeat and whose recent experience had already made him wise in this game, so new to him.
The Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Grantham, was his intimate friend. The newspapers had raised the scandal from time to time about their associations and had accused the complacent Secretary of sharing in the proceeds of the billionaire's combinations. Nothing, however, was ever proved against Mr. Grantham, and he paid no attention to the attacks or the gossip.
On the very morning of the receipt of Payton's letter and after the billionaire had made his decision the Secretary, being in New York, called incognito at Mr. Grayman's office. The business that he had been thinking of was driven from his mind as soon as his friend began to speak.
"Grantham," said Grayman, "I am in terrible trouble. My daughter Helen has been carried off by the sky pirate Alfonso Payton, who has her concealed somewhere and demands $10,000,000 ransom."
"Good God!" cried the Secretary. "Are you in earnest?"
"Terribly in earnest, Grantham, and I want you to help me. The police tried to trap him and made a miserable fiasco, nearly getting me into the same box. In fact, the fellow did carry me off in his aero, but released me on my promise to meet him again."
Mr. Grayman proceeded to relate, detail after detail, all that had happened. In conclusion he said: "You have asked me what you can do. You have all the government aeros engaged in the revenue service under your control, and I suppose that they are the best in the world. You also have an army of trained men and the best detectives. What can you not do to run this fellow down?"
The Secretary reflected.
"Well," he said finally, "I am sorry, Grayman, that you didn't tell me of this at the beginning. But I think that I can help you and, of course, I will. Luckily, there comes to my memory a young man in our service who, I believe, is just the person we need. He has proved himself extraordinarily capable, has been reported for promotion several times and has only been held back by absurd rules of precedence, made to favor mediocrity. I think I'll put him in charge of this affair and give him the chance of his life."
The reader must not accuse me of immodesty when I tell him that it was to me, as the sequel will show, that Mr. Grantham referred in such flattering terms, although at the time I was far from dreaming that I had a friend and admirer in a high place.
"Do as you think best," said Grayman. "But, for God's sake, act quick!"
"So I will. I'll think of nothing else. Now, tell me, have you no information as to the location of the pirate's lair?"
"Not the slightest. As I told you, he communicated with me from 'In the Air,' which you know may mean anywhere on the round world."
"Exactly so. But his letter is postmarked 'Wheeling, W. Va.' and your daughter's 'Charlotte, N. C,' and be promised that he would communicate again."
"Yes, and I don't know at what moment a ring on my bell here may come from him. It makes me jump in my chair every time I hear it."
"Now don't be nervous, my dear fellow," said the Secretary. "Of course he will have to communicate again, and, if I am not greatly mistaken in my young lieutenant, he will find himself in a box when he does. I'll take the Washington special, which leaves in an hour, and send for my man to come at once to my office. If you hear from Payton communicate immediately with me. Make him any kind of promise, only don't go to meet him.
"Put him off and try to fix a day when he shall communicate again. Tell him that will be final, and I reckon that it will be stop now keep up the good heart, Grayman, and we'll get the girl and save you 10 million in the bargain. Just depend upon me and my young man."
In the afternoon of the same day on which Mr. Grayman had his interview with the Secretary of the Treasury the expected telephone call came from Payton. This time the billionaire was primed and nerved for the interview. As on the first occasion, Payton gave his address "in the air" and required "undirected" answers.
"My compliments to you. Mr. Grayman. I suppose you have received my letter?"
"Yes," said Grayman in far better humor than he had answered his mysterious interlocutor the first time, "I have received it, and it has duly impressed me."
"Has it, though?" Replied Payton. "I'm glad to hear that you are so reasonable and so open to conviction. I knew you would not like to run the risk of a misalliance for your daughter. It's a great pity, too, but I see I have no chance against all those counts and dukes."
"No more personalities, if you please," said Grayman. "I prefer to talk business."
"Excellent again!" Exclaimed Payton. "But, remember, no fooling this time. I won't put up with that again. If you bring the money to—"
"Wait a moment," interrupted Grayman, mindful of the Secretary's injunction. "I am involved in transactions of the utmost importance which absolutely forbid my absence just now. I can't tell you exactly when I can get away, but it will be very soon. Suppose you call me up again tomorrow. By that time I'll know when I can leave my affairs and we can fix a date."
If Payton felt a momentary doubt he apparently quickly dismissed it, for in half a minute he replied: "Good! You'll hear from me tomorrow at the same hour."
As soon as the conversation was ended Mr. Grayman called up the Secretary of the Treasury in Washington.
"So!" He exclaimed as soon as Grayman had told him what had just occurred. "Then the nibbling has begun again already. Well, we must hook the fish this time. Only twenty-four hours, you say. I wish it had been longer, but perhaps it will suffice. I shall know as soon as I see my young man, who has been ordered to report to me this afternoon. His name, by the way, is Allan—Lieutenant John Allan. I want you to know that, for I stake my reputation that he will render you a service that you will never forget. We are going to bring Alfonso Payton's career to a sudden end."
If the Secretary talked more confidently than he felt it was only in order to enhearten his friend, and in that he succeeded.
It was Payton's business to suspect, and he was an adept in suspicions that count. He knew that Mr. Grayman was laying another trap, but in this case he had no spies to aid him, and he couldn't have guessed from Mr. Grayman's words what the trap would be, because the billionaire did not know himself.
When I reached Secretary Grantham's office in response to an imperative summons I had not the remotest idea of what it meant.
"Lieutenant Allan," he began. "I have seen you several times. I have heard good reports of you, and I don't mind telling you now that I have formed a good opinion of you. I am about to put you to the test. I am come to think that you can hold your tongue."
The Secretary had never spoken to me like that before.
"I believe I can, sir."
"Very good. It is quite necessary in this case. The daughter of William Grayman, the New York billionaire, has been stolen by the pirate Alfonso Payton. I want you to find her and to capture or kill him."
It was indeed a thunderbolt. For a minute I did not know what to say. At last I stammered:
"But, Mr. Grantham, how can I find her?"
"Did you not tell me not long ago about an invention of yours for finding 'unlocated origins' or something of that kind?"
"I believe I did, sir," I replied, a gleam of intelligence as to his drift coming into my mind.
"I thought so. Well, an opportunity is now presented to dry the value of your invention. You know probably that Mr. Grayman his my particular friend. Everybody"—with a smile—"seems to be aware of that. I'm going to aid him to find his daughter and to punish her abductor with all the power of the services, and I'm going to put you in command, under my personal directions."
"But what shall I do?"
"Listen." Then he went on to tell me of the abduction, of the demands made upon Mr. Grayman, of the communications from Payton, of the abortive enterprise of the police and of the apparent impossibility of locating the scoundrel and his prisoner.
AS already indicated, up to this time there had not been the slightest clue as to where the pirate had established his headquarters.
"It is just here," Secretary Grantham said, "that your invention ought to prove invaluable. The first thing to do is to find out where he harbors. That once known, I will give you plenty of help to run him down."
"I'll try it, sir." I replied promptly.
"And you will not disappoint me," he returned with the most engaging smile. "Get your apparatus into shape at once. I'll see that you are from this moment detailed for special services. As soon as you can get ready come to see me here, and we'll discuss the details."
I hurried to my boarding-place and overhauled my all but forgotten apparatus. I shall not give a long description of it because the majority of readers would not understand the technical details. The principle, however, was quite simple.
The object being to locate the origin of the electric waves used in ethereal telegraphy and telephony, the first essential was to determine their direction of transmission. This I had effected by means of a most delicate needle, which had the property of setting itself exactly at right angles to the axis of the incoming ways. If the latter radiated in all directions from a center it was only necessary to place two of my instruments a long distance apart and note their indications. I can make this clearer with the aid of a little diagram—thus:
Suppose that C represents the center from which the waves radiate and that one of my needles is placed at A and another at B. Then, by observing the direction and the inclination to one another of the radial lines C—A and C—B and the direction of the dotted line joining them and knowing the distance between A and B, you have all the elements needed for a simple trigonometrical calculation which will give the location of the point C.
This, however, applies only to the case where the waves are sent out "undirected" on all sides. With "directed" waves, which are now almost universally employed as they were at the time of which I am writing, a variation of the process is required. It is then necessary that the waves shall be sent either simultaneously or at an interval from the point C separately to A and B. This being done, the result is the same as before, the location of C being determined.
In the latter case a single instrument will suffice, being used first at A and then at B.
I knew that the last described method would have to be employed, since, as I have already explained, Payton was sending "directed" messages to Mr Grayman although the latter's replies were necessarily "undirected," because Payton would not designate his location, and the waves had to be sent out on all sides in order to find him. The only problem for us I saw would be to induce Payton to communicate in succession from the same point with two widely separated stations.
As soon as he should have done that I knew I could "spot" him.
Having thought this out and furbished up my apparatus to make sure that it was in good working order, I returned with it to Mr Grantham's office. The Secretary was delighted with my explanation of the device.
"We've got him!" He exclaimed gleefully. "As sure as there is a Great Chief Justice in the heavens we've got him, and will give him his deserts. And, young man, your fortune is made. Do you know what Mr Grayman will do to reward you for restoring his daughter?"
"No, sir; I haven't thought about that."
"Well, I don't know, either," he replied, with a quizzical smile, "but I have thought about it, and I know what I'd do, anyhow."
Then he looked at me for a moment, laughing good humoredly. But, suddenly becoming serious, "we'll take the first train for New York," he said. "There is no time to be lost. Payton will communicate tomorrow, and we must be on the spot with everything in readiness."
THE next morning Mr Grantham and I went together in an auto from our hotel, where we had arrived in the middle of the night, to Mr Grayman's office.
"This is Lieutenant Allan," said Mr Grantham, presenting me very courteously. "I have already told you about him and my expectations of him. He is not going to fail us. He has brought along a little apparatus which, I fancy, will do the business for Mr Alphonso Payton. Lieutenant Allan, please show Mr Grayman your machine and tell him how it works."
The great billionaire was as delighted with the explanation as the Secretary had been.
"But how," he asked, after a moment's reflection, "are we going to induce Payton to send two messages to different points? And how do we know that he will send them from his hiding place? He may communicate from his aero."
"I have worked that all out, Grayman," replied the Secretary. "In the first place, as to his communicating from his 'Lodge'—for I judge by your daughter's letter that that is what he calls his lair—I believe that there is very little question. He will want to continue to entertain her and to lull her suspicions; and so, having, probably, no more important business than this, he will remain there. You can be sure by asking for news of your daughter.
"Then, as for inducing him to send two messages, that will be easy. Lieutenant Allan tells me that he wishes to select a place for the second communication at a considerable distance from New York, in order to be sure of having a 'manageable angle.' Assuming that Payton's place is somewhere in the Allegheny range, or the Blue Ridge—although, of course, we cannot bank much on the indication of the postmarks, but it is not likely to be much farther away—Buffalo would probably serve our turn.
"All that you have to do, then, will be to interrupt Payton after he has gone far enough in his communication today to enable Allan to determine the direction of the waves and tell him that a sudden imperative call has summoned you to Buffalo and that you must go there tonight. Tell him that until you have seen your man in Buffalo and arrange the affair that you have in hand you cannot name a day when you will be free to meet him, but that if he will communicate with you in Buffalo tomorrow you will be in a position to settle it.
"Of course you know the wireless telephone number of some Buffalo correspondent. Give it to Payton and tell him to call you up there. Then we will take the night train for Buffalo and be ready for him in the morning, and I guarantee that after that Allan will not be 10 minutes in uncovering the hawk's nest."
"But," objected Mr Grayman, "since I have already put him off on a similar plea, that will only excite his suspicions."
"Of course it will excite his suspicions," replied the Secretary. "He is bursting with suspicion now. But what does that amount to? He will not give up his game simply because he knows that you are laying a trap for him. He is used to keeping out of traps. The beauty of our scheme is that let him suspect until doomsday, he can never hit upon it. He will never have the ghost of an idea what we are about. Go ahead, Grayman, and do as I tell you, and I'll be responsible for the result."
SO it was decided, and immediately I made my arrangements for connecting my instrument with the aerial receiver on the roof of the building containing Mr Grayman's offices. We rigged up a temporary telephone from the sanctum to my station, and Secretary Grantham remained with Grayman to give me the word the instant that Payton's call was recognized, in order that I might not confuse it with some other. So I was left alone to wait, and I confess that the strain made me very nervous.
I had to deal with many crooks in the service, but never with one of Payton's calibre. Besides, I felt more and more the importance of this affair to my future, and the Secretary's mysterious words about a reward which he thought that Mr Grayman ought to offer me had got hold of my imagination. I certainly think that neither of the others could have awaited that call as anxiously as I did.
It seemed to me that I had sat there for hours with my eyes glued upon the tell-tale needle, when suddenly it jumped round and then set itself in a definite position, pointing nearly East and West, but with a slight quivering motion.
Almost immediately the Secretary called softly through the telephone: "Hello, Allan! It's coming! Have you got it? It's Payton."
"Yes," I said. "I've got it. Don't interrupt me now, please."
I could tell every time the Payton began or ceased to speak, because in the first case the needle moved into position, as at a command, and in the second it lost its rigidity and wandered all around the compass. The conversation lasted only two or three minutes, and Payton spoke perhaps half a dozen times. I observed the indications of the needle with the utmost exactness and entered them in a notebook. They were perfectly definite and accordant every time, and I felt an immense exaltation over my success. Presently Mr Grant called to me again.
"Hello! It's all over. You can come down."
You can imagine how eagerly I descended into Grayman's sanctum, carrying my precious instrument. As I entered I saw by the expression of the two men's faces that all had gone well on their side.
"How is it?" Demanded the Secretary. "Did it work?"
"To perfection," I replied.
"Good! Good!" And Mr Grantham, forgetting his dignity, fairly jumped up and down, while Grayman smiled patronizingly.
"Have you got the direction sure?" asked the Secretary.
"I've got the axis of progression of the waves to a nicety. They came from the north, but of course I as yet know nothing about the distance that they had traveled in coming here."
"Then we'll get him!" Exclaimed Mr Grantham. "He's agreed to communicate to Buffalo tomorrow."
"But are you sure that he sent his message from his lodge?" I asked.
"Not a doubt of it. Mr Grayman got that out of him by inquiring about his daughter's health, and he replied that she had just gone to her room with Susan in excellent spirits."
"But will he communicate from the same place tomorrow?"
"Have no fear about that. He told Mr Grayman that they were going fishing in the morning and that he would call him up at 9 o'clock."
"Then," I replied, equally unable to restrain my delight, "we certainly have got him!"
THAT night we took the express for Buffalo, arriving in the morning, and Mr. Grayman conducted us at once to the office of Henry Garland, one of the great backers of the town, who was in the Grayman combination and who had been notified by telegraph of our coming.
Mr. Garland was delighted to oblige the billionaire by giving him the exclusive use of his private office.
In half an hour I had made all my arrangements, and again we waited. Payton was faithful to his appointment, and everything worked like a charm. As before, my needle indicated every break in his talk and set itself while the waves were planing in a perfectly definite direction.
The distance and bearing of Buffalo from New York being known, I now had all the elements of the problem in my hands, and it only remained to solve it on paper, the matter of a minute or two.
But the reader may be interested in knowing what was said by Payton and Mr. Grayman on this occasion.
Payton opened by saying: "Good morning, Mr. Grayman. Helen and I have just been out catching a string of trout that it would do your eyes good to look upon. The dear girl becomes more fascinated with her surroundings here every hour, and really I am beginning to regret my agreement to exchange her for society even for so large a sum as $10 million. However, a bargain is a bargain, and I shall stand by my word."
"Well, well," replied Mr. Grayman, "I have heard enough of this. Are you ready to talk business?"
"Quite ready, Mr. Grayman. But to begin, let me warn you that I know all about your machinations, and I advise you in a friendly spirit to drop them. If you do not I shall refuse to part with Helen on any terms. Make no mistake about the place that I already occupy in her esteem. You can never arrest this if you let it go on longer."
Payton was playing his master card for all that he thought it worth.
"What do you propose?" Asked Mr. Grayman.
"I propose that you meet me with the money on Friday of this week on the top of the bare hill, which you will have no difficulty in recognizing, near Utica, N.Y. If any questions should arise in your mind as to the precise locality you can recognize it by seeing the Chameleon hovering over the hill. If you prefer you can send forward a representative, keeping at a safe distance yourself. But you know what will be the result of any attempted trap. I will deliver Helen in exchange for the money."
Mr. Grayman pretended to hesitate, while he held a consultation with the Secretary.
"Friday of this week," said the latter. "It is now Wednesday. That gives us two days, which I think will be enough. I'm sure Allan must now have all the data he needs. Tell him you'll be there."
Mr. Grayman did so, and the pirate responded as usual, "Good!" adding, "Drop your game this time; I am ready for everything of that kind." And so the conversation ended.
The moment I appeared Mr. Grayman and the Secretary eagerly demanded the result.
"It's all right," I said. "I have now only a little figuring to do."
And immediately I sat down to do it. The lines from Buffalo and New York, as indicated by the needle, were by no means so divergent as I had expected, but the angle was easily manageable. I made the necessary calculations, the result of which much surprised me. Without saying a word I went over my figures again, the two men leaning over my shoulder in breathless expectancy.
At last, satisfied with the accuracy of my work, I called for a large-scale atlas. One was brought and, opening the North American sheet, you should have seen the astonishment of the two men when I placed my finger on a point away up in Labrador and said, somewhat excitedly, "That's where you will find your man; there's where your daughter is, Mr. Grayman!"
"Good heavens!" Cried the billionaire. "Away off there! Are you sure?"
"I'm not more sure that my head is on my shoulders. There can be no mistake about it, provided that you are sure that both communications came from the same point."
I'll bet all I'm worth on that," said the Secretary.
"Then there's your man." And I pressed my thumbnail into the map.
Then I made a little diagram like this:
"Here," I said, "is New York, and this line indicates the path of the waves received yesterday. Here is Buffalo, and this other line shows the path of the waves that have just arrived. Where these two lines intersect must be Payton's Lodge and the place of Miss Grayman's imprisonment."
Suddenly the Secretary turned to me and said, "how far do you make it to Payton's place?"
"It must me more than 800 miles in an air-line from New York," I replied.
"Yes, I should think it must be that distance. Now, our first, our imperative business is to see that Payton doesn't get away before we can descend upon him. They say that his aero is very fast. She ought to be able to make 180 miles an hour."
"A hundred and forty, he told me," said Mr. Grayman.
"That's mighty fast," returned the Secretary. "I doubt if we have a flier in our fleet that could hold that pace."
"Yes," I said, with some pride; "the Eagle can do it at need."
The Eagle was my own aero, and I had often tried her out for speed.
"Good again," said Mr. Grantham, smiling at me very kindly. "Now, the speedier Payton's aero is the better for our present purpose, because the less need he will have of making an early start for the rendezvous. If he ran only 100 miles an hour he could do the distance to Utica in six or seven hours; but, of course, he won't hurry. He need not start before tomorrow night, and probably he will not, because he will prefer to come on by night in order to run the less risk."
"That's what he did before," said Mr. Grayman.
"All right, then," said the Secretary. "We'll assume that that will be his course. But we have no time to lose. We must catch him before he starts. Fortunately, Allan, I have ordered your aero and four other cracks to be ready to leave Washington, fully armed and provisioned, on the receipt of a dispatch from me. I'll tell them to come on at once. Now, Grayman, you can go along or not, as you prefer."
"I'll go," said Mr. Grayman promptly.
Mr. Grantham, in his dispatch, had the foresight to order the aero to meet us at a little town a considerable distance east of Buffalo, where Mr. Grayman and himself would run less risk of recognition. Accordingly, after a good meal we went by train to the designated place, arriving a little before 1 o'clock. As we descended from the train I was delighted to recognize the Eagle hovering over the little town. The four other aeros were running about near, and a crowd had already gathered about the station and in the street, watching them.
"We'd better get aboard as quickly as possible," said Mr. Grantham. "Let's walk a little way up the hill, out of town, and I'll signal the aeros to drop down for us."
In response to the signal to of the aeros, the Crow and the Eagle, swooped down to earth. My men were rejoiced to see me, and I to set foot once more on the deck of my beloved flier. She had her full complement, but the other was a little short, so I sent two men aboard the Crow to make room for the Secretary and Mr. Grayman without weighting the Eagle too much. I wanted to have her in good running trim.
"Now. Lieutenant Allan," said Mr. Grantham as soon as we were aboard and afly, "you are in immediate command of this fleet. I have ordered the commanders of the other aeros to recognize you as their commanding officer and the Eagle as their flagship. I shall continue to advise you, but you will take charge of all technical details and give the orders. As the fliers are all duly armed and provisioned, there is nothing to prevent our making a start immediately!"
No one could have been more eager to start than I was. Instantly I ran up the signal to get under way, the others being instructed to follow my lead. Besides the Crow, already mentioned, there were the Osprey, the Bobolink and the Skylark, all, as I was glad to see, the best fliers in the service, although I believed that none of them could keep pace with the Eagle in a race.
The electric gun had already been invented, and each of the aeros carried two of these terrible weapons, of a caliber of two- and-a-half inches, one at the stern and the other at the bow. They fired either shells or solid shot. As everybody knows, the electric gun makes no report, but a sharp whish is heard as the projectile leaves the muzzle. These projectiles at that time had an effective range of three miles, but when fired from an elevation they would often fall to earth at a distance twice as great. It was, therefore, necessary to be very careful in using them over inhabited country, and we used always to run out over the sea for gun practice, employing unmanned balloons for targets. One of our aeros could easily carry a hundred rounds of ammunition for each gun.
There was great competition among the gunners in marksmanship, and I had on the Eagle a Connecticut Yankee, Ethan Haight, who was practically a dead shot and a great favorite among the men. We carried no dropping bombs, like the navy aeros, but each had a stand of automatic rifles and pistols, besides cutlasses. The full complement was ten men, including the commander, the engineer and the steersman. On this occasion our entire flotilla carried thirty-eight fighting men, my own crew comprising only eight men, including myself, after I had made room for my two visitors.
There was a quick response to my signal to get underway, and in a few minutes, to the great admiration of the people below, the whole fleet, with its aeroplanes flashing in the sun, was speeding northward, the Eagle in the lead.
WHILE these preparations for her rescue were underway the unconscious prisoner in Labrador had at last awakened to a realization of her position. While rummaging among the books in the library she had come upon the autobiography of Henry Morton. It was not a book likely to attract the attention of a young woman, but she turned over its leaves, thinking more of the gap which the absence of the Commodore Brown had left than of what she was idly looking at. Presently as she opened the volume in another place a letter sheet wedged between the leaves lay exposed full to view:
CAPT. ALPHONSO PAYTON:
My Dear Captain
The damage to the "Chameleon" from our accident after carrying off Miss Peterson of Peoria is more serious than you supposed. I find that four or five days will be required to repair her. I have sent her to a shop here and will report to you as soon as she is ready. Respectfully,
ABRAM SNELLING, Lieutenant.
Cincinnati, July 1, 1930.
Miss Grayman was aghast. Her hands convulsively grasped her throat as the truth burst upon her. The name of the Chameleon alone was enough, but now she suddenly remembered to have heard or read of "Captain Alphonso Payton." This, then, was the man who had succeeded in awakening so much personal interest in her. And she was his prisoner. This was the romantic adventure that her fancy had conjured up, invented by her friends, approved by her father and so innocently and joyously entered upon by herself!
She read the letter again, and the name of "Snelling" struck her. She had heard Payton address one of his men by that name. But no more confirmation was needed. The scales had dropped completely from her eyes. Stimulated by indignation, strength and resolution came to her.
"Susan!" she called.
Susan came running in, alarmed by her mistress' accent.
"Get our wraps, quick!"
"Why, Miss Helen, what—"
"Don't stand there questioning. Run! Quick! Quick!"
The bewildered girl obeyed and in a minute returned with the garments.
"Come with me to the canoe!" commanded Miss Grayman, whose self-control was growing with the emergency.
As they ran down the steps from the veranda and along the short path to the landing-place Miss Grayman glanced fearfully around. Thank heaven, Mrs. Williams was occupied somewhere about the house, and not a person was in sight.
"Into the canoe!" said Miss Grayman in the same imperative voice, though she spoke hardly above a whisper, and Susan silently obeyed her. Miss Grayman seized the paddle, and in a few seconds they were out on the lake.
"Where are we going?" asked Susan wonderingly.
"Not a word!" said her mistress. "Don't talk! Don't make any noise!"
She turned the canoe toward the inlet and paddled with all her might. As they passed under the overhanging branches she glanced hastily toward the lodge. Still nobody was in sight, and Miss Grayman's heartbeat quick with joy.
"Oh, thank heaven, we are away!" she muttered. Still, she knew that she must strain every nerve. Payton might return at any moment, and their absence could not long remain unnoticed. They rounded the first bend, not a word having passed between them. They rounded the second bend, and the rapids were before them. Still no pursuit.
"I must land here," whispered Miss Grayman. "The canoe can go no farther."
She turned to the shore on the left bank of the pond, feeling instinctively that that was the more distant from the lodge.
An hour they traveled, not knowing or caring what the direction was as long as it seemed to be away from the lodge. In a little while the woods became more open, and they made better progress. Miss Grayman hurried on, and Susan panted at her heels. Suddenly Susan exclaimed, "Oh, Miss Helen, I can't—I can't go any farther!"
"Then we'll sit down and rest," was the reply.
They sat down on a fallen trunk, overgrown with soft fresh moss. Presently Susan stretched herself flat on her back, her face streaming with perspiration.
"Oh," she panted. "I shall die!"
"No, you won't die," said Miss Grayman, whose strength was sustained by a more terrible fear than Susan knew. "You'll feel all right in a few minutes."
"Are you not going to return to the lodge?"
"Heaven forbid!" cried her mistress. "Susan, do you know who it is that we are running away from? It is the Sky Pirate, Alphonso Payton!"
Susan was probably better read in the literature of piracy, especially as represented by the sensational journals, than her mistress, and at the name of Alphonso Payton she turned ashy pale.
"Oh, good Lordy!" she cried, when she recovered her breath. "You don't mean that, Miss Helen? Why, he is the wickedest man in the world! I've read all about him in the Sunday Peace. If he gets us we gone sure! He never gives you up unless you pay him $100,000. The paper said so. And if you don't pay you're killed! Oh, dear me, what shall I do? But won't Commodore Brown help us?"
"You goose!" said Miss Grayman, her amusement at Susan's stupidity serving to animate her. "Of course Commodore Brown won't help us. He's the very man."
"Commodore Brown is Alphonso Payton!"
Susan could say no more. She had no words and remained staring at her mistress with gaping mouth.
"But where will you go, Miss Helen? We'll get lost in the woods, and where shall we sleep tonight?" she finally gasped.
"We are lost already," replied Miss Grayman gravely. "I could not find my way back if I wished to. As to where we shall sleep, I don't know—on the ground, under a tree, I suppose."
"But the bears!"
"We must trust in God."
"And what shall we eat?"
To be killed? To starve? What were these in comparison with meeting that man again? Yet, by one of those curious mental freaks to which we are all subject, while Miss Grayman had thought neither of wild beasts nor of food. The idea that they would need covering at night had flashed upon her, and it was for that reason that she had sent Susan for the wraps. And now they clung to these things and lugged them along as if their lives and safety depended upon them alone.
Miss Grayman made no reply to Susan's questions about what they should eat. She simply pressed on, and Susan followed. Sometimes they were caught in tangles of spiny undergrowth, from which there seemed no issue. Yet, on and on they struggled. They were wearing the stout garments that Payton had recommended, but even these were becoming torn and disordered.
At last, wearied beyond expression, they had to stop. It was getting dark in the woods, and they knew that the sun was near setting. Miss Grayman selected a spot where the covering of pine needles was deep and soft, under a group of trees, and, spreading her cloak and bidding Susan do the same with her wrap, lay down.
They were worn out, hungry, thirsty, but they had no supper. They wished for a fire, but that could not be had. So they lay down again, close together, arms intertwined, the daughter of the great billionaire embracing her humbler sister, and finding comfort in her companionship that at least warmed her heart.
They tried to sleep, but, in addition to the cold, noises now arose that drove sleep from their tired eyes—strange sounds of the trackless wilderness, distant, wailing screams that gradually approached and filled them with terror, rustlings among the branches, the snapping of twigs in the inky darkness, heavier sounds from the depths of the forest, animal voices replying to one another. Eyes were watching them, though they did not know it. They twined their arms closer and trembled, and at last sobbed together. The cold increased, although, after a time, the nearer noises ceased. At last, in spite of all the discomfort, they fell asleep.
Then a dark form moved stealthily and silently from a thicket and approach them. It knelt beside the troubled sleepers and listened. Finally it reached out long arms and cautiously spread a warm robe over them. The next instant it had disappeared.
The sun was shining on the treetops when they awoke, both opening their eyes at the same moment, disturbed probably buy some noise. For a few seconds Miss Grayman did not realize where she was. Then it all came back to her in a flash. Without raising her head she said to Susan: "thank heaven, the night is gone! We have escaped, and today—"
A scream from Susan interrupted her.
"Oh, Lord, look!" cried the girl, who had risen on her elbow.
Miss Grayman half rose in affright, and there, sitting on a log, stolidly staring at them, was Indian John.
Susan, after her fashion, fainted, but Miss Grayman was stronger. Although trembling with fear and surprise, she rose to her feet. Then for the first time she noticed the robe that had covered them. Her quick intelligence, awakened by recent events, told her the story in an instant. They had been tracked and recaptured.
For a minute the thought of resistance dwelt in Miss Grayman's mind. But how could she resist? She had no weapon, and the Indian was armed. They were both half famished and worn out. No; resistance was not to be thought of. The girl did not burst into tears. She was too dazed. She said nothing whatever, but, turning to Susan, tried to revive her. At this Indian John silently brought water and threw it into the girl's face. She revived immediately. Then he offered them food, which they took, even with eagerness.
He did not hurry them. He seemed to have infinite patience. But at last he touched Miss Grayman on the arm and made her a sign that they must be going.
Now he spoke: "Must not stay where bad bears. Go back to Lodge."
There was a gleam of grave humor in his eyes.
Miss Grayman made no reply, but, wearily and despairingly, she followed him, Susan clinging to her side. He scarcely glanced over his shoulder, although his wary eyes and ears knew their movements. He set a slow pace, as if commiserating their fatigue, but in an astonishingly short space of time they saw the gleam of the little lake and then the Lodge. They had been traveling almost in a circle!
As they approached the Lodge Miss Grayman's heart sank at the sight of the Chameleon.
Payton had returned! How she dreaded the meeting with him! But he did not appear. Neither was Mrs. Williams visible. The Indian led them to the door and paused, and they entered alone. Even yet not a person appeared, and they ascended, unaccompanied, to their apartments. Miss Grayman threw herself on her bed, and her heart gave way. She wept and sobbed. Wild thoughts ran through her brain. She even thought of making away with herself. Yes, if help did not come soon she would do that!
MISS GRAYMAN'S mad attempt at escape, unfortunate though it turned out, was probably, after all, the means of her salvation. It had the effect of keeping Payton at his lodge. But for the necessity which he felt of watching her personally we might not have succeeded in getting the two communications from the same point, and that the very point that we wished to hit upon.
Payton never spoke to Miss Grayman again while she remained at the lodge. Perhaps he was ashamed to face her. He well might have been. Perhaps he had some other reason. But, at any rate, from that moment she was kept a close prisoner, and all that Payton said to Mr. Grayman about her continued cheerfulness and about their trout fishing was a base falsehood, invented to prey upon the billionaire's mind.
And now to the story of our search and the startling events that came out of it.
After leaving the little town I ordered full speed ahead, and we trailed away in a long line in this order—the Eagle, the Skylark, the Osprey, the Crow and the Bobolink. It was a beautiful squadron, I can tell you, and how proud I felt to be in command of it! We were nearly a mile high, and in a short time we passed over Lake Ontario, where the sunlit and wind-wrinkled surface looked like frosted silver from that height. Away to the west we saw Toronto.
Afterward we passed Ottawa, but I kept a good offing, not caring to run the risk of being seen by spies. After that we soon had beneath us great forests, scattered clearings and ranges of hills. I drop down near the Earth now, the danger of detection becoming less.
"It is fortunate," I said to Mr. Grayman and Secretary Grantham, who most of the time stood beside me on the deck, "that Payton did not select a hiding-place somewhere in the western part of the Dominion, for then the lines to New York and Buffalo might have nearly coincided, and it would have been very difficult to calculate their point of intersection."
"You'd have managed it, my boy," said Mr. Grantham, putting his hand with a kindly pat on my shoulder. "You have too much at stake to lose this game. But I'm glad it proved easy for you."
Mr. Grayman meanwhile had fallen into a meditative mood. He was thinking about his daughter and her peril.
"The poor girl!" we heard him mutter. "The poor girl! Heaven protect her!"
"See here, Grayman," said the Secretary, "this won't do. Don't go to worrying now when the thing is almost ended. The time for worry is gone. We've got the rascal located. We're going to drop upon him without the slightest warning, and we've got the force needed to overcome him. Your daughter's danger is passed, and inside of ten hours at the most she will be in your arms."
Mr. Grayman tried to smile and to look cheerful, but his heart was heavy.
"We must begin to work out the details of our plan," said the Secretary, turning to me. "Do you think that you could find him at night if possible, it might be best to drop upon him in the darkness. We might catch him asleep if we know the exact spot. Suppose you go over your calculations and see how near you can determine the exact number of miles that we must still run. Then we can regulate our speed accordingly."
I did as Mr. Grantham requested, and, after consulting the excellent charts that we carried, I announced that from Ottawa to the apparent intersection of the lines the distance was very close to 508 miles. We had passed Ottawa an hour before, going at a clip of 120 miles. Mr. Grantham took out his watch.
"Three o'clock," he said. "The days are long and longer the farther we go north. There is an all-night twilight in central Labrador, but if we arrive at 10 o'clock it will probably be dark enough for our purpose. I don't believe his lights will be out earlier than that."
"That means a trifle less then fifty-nine miles an hour," I remarked.
"Yes; that, then, should be our speed."
Immediately I signaled the aeros astern to reduce their speed to accord with ours and ordered my engineer to drop to fifty-nine miles. Then we entered my cabin to complete our plan of operations and to pass away the time, which seemed very long viewed in prospect.
I had already ordered Ethan Haight to get his bow gun in shape for quick work, for in an emergency I counted more on him than on the other gunner. Besides, I had no thought of showing my heels. The small arms were also in complete readiness, and every man carried 20 cartridges in his belt besides the 10 in the magazine of his rifle. This applied to the other aeros as well.
If it came to a fight I didn't believe that Captain Alfonso would stand up to it very long. My chief fear was as to his running away. As I have already intimated, I had great confidence in the Eagle and you her powers to a nicety, but I was willing to allow that the Chameleon might be able to draw away from her in a race.
As to my course, I had set it with extreme care, and I was sure that it would take me very close to the intersection of my lines. But would it find Payton's hiding place? In my soul I believed it would.
I glanced frequently at the formidable line of aeros trailing after us, rising and falling with the atmospheric billows, while their polished guns glinted in the sunlight, and as I watched my heart alternately swelled with pride and sank under the weight of anxiety.
We dined about half after seven, and shortly afterward I signaled the squadron to assemble and gave each commander as he dropped alongside the Eagle the program of operations which we had worked out in my cabin. This is virtually what I repeated to all of them:
"We are going to make a descent upon the lurking place of Alfonso Payton. He has a Lodge here in the woods and holds as his prisoners a young lady and her maid, whom he has stolen from New York. The young lady's father is aboard the Eagle, and with him, as you are aware, is Secretary Grantham. I believe that he has already informed you that all of our movements in this case are to be kept as a department secret. The honor and reputation of the service are at stake. You will act under my immediate orders, but under the eye of the Secretary.
"It is our design to reach the pirate's place after nightfall and to locate his lodge, as he calls it, which is probably a building of considerable magnitude and which may be strongly manned and fortified. We shall surround it and endeavor to capture him and his prisoners. We believe that he has only one aero, a very fast flier, the Chameleon, of which you have all heard.
"We must prevent him, at all costs, from getting away in her. If he tries escape we must disable his aero. But great care must be exercised not to injure his prisoners in case he should succeed in getting them aboard. That is a thing that we must prevent if it be humanly possible. You will get your signal lights ready for instant use, but no light is to be shown in approaching the place.
"There is an all-night twilight in this latitude at this season, and there will be sufficient light in the sky to enable you to follow the movements of the Eagle above the treetops. You will now drop a quarter of a mile behind, keeping in line abreast at intervals of an eighth of a mile. I will signal you when to stop by a stern light. I will give you signals for your subsequent movements."
I then issued to each commander a signal code which I had prepared for maneuvering the squadron both in surrounding the lodge and in the case of an attempt to escape and a fight. But the majority of the signals are already well known in the service.
After sundown and when the woods beneath us began to grow dark and there details indistinguishable I slowed down to twenty miles, which after a time I reduced to ten and then to five. We had muffled the machinery as much as possible. We were all on deck with night-glasses, peering down intently at the sombre tufted surface of foliage, from which the cries of wild animals now occasionally rose to us.
When I felt that we must be close to the critical point I halted the other fliers and went on very cautiously with the Eagle, circling in narrow sweeps and not moving faster than two miles an hour. In a little while I caught a gleam of light a short distance ahead. I dropped the aero until she almost touched the branches and crept nearer.
We had come in sight of the little lake in front of Payton's lodge, and as we drew nearer we saw on the opposite shore the lodge itself, with lights streaming from the lower windows.
"It must be the place," I said. "It can be nothing else."
Immediately we backed off until we were out of sight of the lodge, and then I signaled the fleet to advance. I sent them about in such a manner as to surround the lodge on every side. When the maneuver was completed the five aeros floated within a hundred rods of the building, their noses all inward and their bow guns bearing upon the lair of Captain Alfonso Payton.
THE Eagle had resumed her position on the opposite side of the little lake from the lodge and directly facing the entrance of the latter. I could see the dim forms of the other aeros silently waiting in their places and no light showing about. The Eagle from her position was the only one that might be seen from the lodge, but, covered by the shadows of the tall trees, the tops of many of which rose above us, I was confident that we would not be noticed as long as we did not move.
Now we held a consultation in whispers. Occasionally we caught glimpses of forms moving in the building. They had taken no pains to close the shutters, and we could see three men who passed at irregular intervals before the windows.
"If I knew which was the pirate I would direct you to shoot him down from here," said the Secretary, "but we might make a mistake."
Suddenly Ethan Haight, who, in his eagerness, had ventured to leave his gun and approach us, touched me on the arm. "There's the Chameleon, lootenant!" he said, pointing.
It was a fact. Faintly visible in the gloom, her form revealed by the light from behind, the famous aero lay on her cradle at the shore of the lake.
Ethan touched me again.
"Say the word, lootenant, an' I kin send a shell into her that'll put her out o' commission. Then how's he goin' to git away?"
It seemed like a good idea, but I felt bound to consult Mr. Grantham.
"It might be the best thing to do," he said, "if you are sure of hitting a vital spot. But in the darkness I'm doubtful of that."
"It's a risky shot, sir," put in Ethat, "but if you'll let me try it I'll bet a Connecticut cigar that the Chameleon'll not fly ag'in for a while."
But Mr. Grantham shook his head.
"A better way," he whispered, "would be to drop silently down across the lake and seize her where she lies."
"But they would see us approach."
"Suppose they do. We could get there ahead of them, and at a signal the other aeros would be upon them."
After a little further whispering we finally settled upon this plan against my better judgment and greatly to the disappointment of Ethan Haight, who went off grumbling. As it turned out, Ethan's idea was the best.
In dead silence I got the men all ready for a rush the moment we should reach the side of the Chameleon, and then, rising a little to clear the shafts of light from the windows, we began cautiously to cross the lake. We were about halfway across and had dropped nearer the water and I was congratulating myself on our prospective success when a flash like blue lightning came from the Chameleon, followed by the loud whish of an electric gun, which blended with a sharp splintering report as a shell struck the Eagle.
We were upset by the shock, and the Eagle veered from her course, her nose shooting up in the air, while one of her aeroplanes dipped and swept the water like a broken wing. In an instant another shell came, which also struck us, ripping up a part of the deck and narrowly missing her motors.
We with the surprised party and surprised with a vengeance. Payton, as we afterward learned, always had a crew aboard the Chameleon, and even when they were in their "home port" they did not altogether relaxed their vigilance.
Luckily nobody aboard us was hit, but the damage done was sufficient to render the Eagle virtually unmanageable.
The noise produced an immediate effect upon the people in the lodge. There were the sounds of running to and fro, doors were slammed, agonized screams reached our ears, and in an incredibly brief time we saw three men dragging two women down the short path from the building to the Chameleon.
"For God's sake," cried the Secretary, "do something quick! Payton is running away with his prisoners."
But we were powerless to interfere, the Eagle hovering and dipping like a wounded bird over the lake and refusing to answer her helm. We could not even return the fire, for neither of our guns could be brought to bear, and if they could have been we might have killed the prisoners as they were carried aboard.
I managed to signal the other aeros to close in. I doubt if they notice the signals, but they endeavored to close just the same. I saw the blue flashes from two or three of their guns as they swept down over the trees to the lake, but the shells exploded in the forest beyond, and a minute later the Chameleon rose like a frightened hawk in short, swift spirals, making straight up into the darkening heavens.
The Skylark, which I recognized by her rig, darted after her, and I saw several shots fired, but evidently without effect, and the Chameleon, suddenly changing her ascent to a horizontal course, rushed away with amazing speed, while the Skylark continued to chase her. The other three moved confusedly about, and I shouted to the Osprey to drop down by us.
"Here," I said to Lieutenant Osborne, her commander, "take charge of the Eagle and beach her. I'll take the Osprey with my crew, and you can transfer yours to the Eagle. Quick, now!"
The transfer was effected in less than five minutes, and immediately I rose out of the shadow of the trees, commanding the Crow and the Bobolink to follow me at full speed. Mr. Grayman and the Secretary, of course, accompanied me aboard the Osprey. It was a desperate move, but the only thing to be done, as the Eagle had become utterly unmanageable.
When we had attained a considerable elevation we caught sight of the chase far off to the north, the heavens yet retaining a twilight glow. The Skylark was far in the rear, but keeping nobly at her work and occasionally firing a gun, to which there was no response.
The revenue fliers were all built on the same general plan, so that I ran no risk of confusion or uncertainty for my men in transferring them. I wanted my own crew because I knew every man of them like a book, and particularly I wanted Ethan and the engineer. I should have liked to give Ethan his own gun, but, of course, when every second was precious, no transfer of armament could be thought of. As soon as the chase was located I ordered top speed and then took Mr. Grayman and the Secretary into the cabin for a consultation. They were greatly cast down by the unfortunate turn that the affair had taken, particularly the billionaire, who fairly groaned:
"He's run off with Helen, and now he'll kill her. Oh, why did we undertake this?"
Mr. Grantham evidently felt that the responsibility rested on him, and he showed no disposition to shirk it. Neither was he altogether discouraged, and he started to inspirit his friend.
"Gentlemen," I said respectfully, "pardon me for saying that we have no time now for talk of this kind. It is not for that that I invited you into the cabin. Mr. Grantham, you have done me the honor to put me in command. If I am to succeed from this time forth I must be unhampered. I wanted to ask you Mr. Secretary, if you would be willing to leave me in absolute control. I have hitherto felt that I ought to consult you in critical moments. I do not want to do that in the future. Our only chance is in having a single responsible commander and no divided counsels."
"You are entirely right," exclaimed the Secretary. "I believe it's my fault that Payton got off. From this moment you are in absolute control. I'll simply be a spectator."
Mr. Grayman said nothing, and I was greatly gratified.
I went immediately on deck, the others following. I was delighted to perceive that the Chameleon was still visible, though dim in the distance, with the Skylark doggedly churning after her and yet firing from time to time. Close behind us rushed the Crow and the Bobolink. I visited the engineer.
"Jim, do you know the Osprey's motors?" I asked.
"I've been aboard her often," he said, "and I know her whole make-up pretty well.
"What is her best speed?"
"Jack"—the regular engineer of the Osprey—"often told me he had made 130 miles."
"See if you can't work it up to a hundred and forty."
"I don't believe it's possible," replied Jim, "but I'll bust her if you say so."
"I don't say 'bust her,' but I say see what is the very best that's in her."
"Oh, if I only had the Eagle!" he responded.
"No use wishing for what you can't have. Now go at it and make her spin."
The Osprey certainly had never been made to reveal her full powers before. In ten minutes I was surprised at the speed we were making. The sharp, steady squish of the aeroplanes as we cut the air was inspiring to listen to. The wind of our passage struck us in gusts from right and left and made us cling to the supports.
By this time the moon, approaching its last quarter, had well risen and added her silvery glimmer to the twilight glow, enabling us more clearly to make out the chase without glasses. We were dropping the Crow and the Bobolink, and I signaled them to do better, but evidently they were already doing their best, for they had not my engineer, and gradually they fell farther astern. Then I signaled them to by no means lose sight of us and on we went.
The Skylark was supposed to be next to the Eagle the fastest flier in the fleet, but now we were plainly overhauling her. Jim was giving us every inch of speed that the motors contained, and the Osprey must have been surprised at herself. I began to doubt if even the Eagle could have done better. It is sometimes as much the man as the engine that counts, and Jim I knew to be the best in the service for his job. It was half after two o'clock in the morning, and the northeastern heavens were beginning to lighten, when we passed the Skylark, close at hand, so that I could call across to her commander. Of course I did not slacken speed.
"Grimes," I shouted, "can't the Skylark beat the Osprey?"
"She always used to," he called back; "but, by Jove, you must have bewitched that aero! Where's Osborn?"
"I changed fliers with him after the Eagle was disabled, and I've got my own crew, with the Secretary, aboard here. It's my engineer who is doing this. See if you can stir yours up to a little livelier work. We mustn't let Payton escape. His got his prisoners with him."
"You don't say so?" cried Grimes. "I saw that you were disabled, and I simply put out after him, but I didn't know he had the prisoners."
"Well, he has them, but we're going to get them—and him. The Crow and the Bobolink are coming up astern. Don't wait for them, but follow me as fast as you can."
The indicator showed that we were now making 139.7 miles per hour. I had never quite equaled that with the Eagle.
During the night it had at all times been far more difficult to detect the Chameleon than the Skylark, not only because of her greater distance, but also because of her dusky color. In fact, we probably never would have sighted her after we rose from the lake had not the Skylark served as a guide to the eye. Now as the sky turned blue she shifted her color to correspond, and it required the utmost diligence with the strongest glass to keep her in view.
When day came we saw off to the west a great expanse of water and a long shore running northward.
"That's Hudson Bay," I said.
Mr. Grayman seemed greatly surprised.
"Can it be possible?" he exclaimed. "Oh, what a terrible experience this has been!"
Mr. Grantham took the announcement more cheerfully.
"I guess the fellow is making for the North Pole," he said, laughing. "If you can discover the pole, Allan, as a side issue of this chase, your reputation will be established."
"I'll go to the pole if he does," I replied. "He's never going to shake me off, let him go where he will."
"But what is your plan?" broke in Mr. Grayman. "How are you going to capture him?"
"I've got no plan yet," I replied unconsciously imitating the style of Chief Braman. "I've got to wait for developments. The only thing at present is to keep him in sight. If we can run him out of power we've got him."
I should say that the electric storage batteries now in universal use had at that time only recently been perfected, but they were carried by all crack aeros. An aero of the size of the Chameleon or the Osprey could, on account of the marvelous lightness and compactness of their batteries, carry a enough for a run of 6,000 or 8,000 miles or even double those distances if going at a very moderate speed. But as soon as the pace was forced the consumption of power was enormously increased.
But Payton was not such a fool as I had hastily assumed. He knew what he was about and how to turn when he wanted to. In the course of the morning, while Mr. Grayman, the Secretary and I were taking a much-needed nap, Ethan Haight, to whom I had entrusted the delicate duty of keeping sight of the Chameleon while I slept, awoke me in my birth.
"Lootenant," he explained excitedly, "the Chameleon has dropped!"
"Dropped? What do you mean?"
"She's gone down, sir, like a chunk of lead. I jest had her steady in the glass when she rounded to an' fluttered down out of sight."
I jumped from my birth and ran with Ethan to the outlook.
"Where did she go down?" I demanded.
"Jest in line o' that hummock."
I had expected some such maneuver during the night, but I was not prepared for it now. The first thought that came to me was that Payton must have another hiding-place here and that he had dropped into it.
"We'll hold the course for that point," I said, "and not slacken speed." I calculated that the "hummock" was twenty miles off. We should be there in about eight minutes.
I AWOKE both the Secretary and Mr. Grayman as soon as the new situation developed, and they came out on deck. Mr. Grantham immediately fell in with my opinion.
"The rascal has another port there," he said. "I wish the other aeros would come up."
"The Skylark," I replied, "will soon be here, but we cannot wait for her. Payton has either run out of power or he means to make a stand. We are so close upon him that he will have to make a stand anyhow or else try to escape under our guns, and if I know Ethan Haight's style of shooting the fellow won't run far."
"But remember, sir, my daughter is aboard," broke in Grayman. "Her life must not be endangered."
"Surely not," I replied. "Yet you see yourself that some risk must be taken. What I shall try to do is to disable the Chameleon. A shell into her motors or the breaking of one of her aeroplanes would do it."
"But then she might be precipitated to the ground."
"But she is not likely to be. She would fluttered down, if she fell at all, like a wounded bird. Remember how the Eagle behaved last night, and she was badly hit. Then, of course, Payton has parachutes, and he would save his prisoners in that way."
"I'm not so sure of that," said the Secretary. "He would probably think only of saving his own neck. But really, Grayman, the danger of a tumble is slight. In the battle above the English Channel between the French and British aero squadrons during the last war 30 fliers were completely disabled, shot to pieces, as far as any further utility as fighting machines was concerned, but not one of them fell into the water. All succeeded in skimming to land on one side or the other."
"If we can," said I, "we'll stop him before he can get afly."
"You think he is on this side of the hummock?" asked the Secretary.
"Ethan thinks so, but is not sure. We'll have to look closely now."
While we were talking we had drawn up within a couple of miles of the hummock, which was a round hill covered with timber and rising to a height of perhaps 150 feet out of a broad, level plane, where there were few trees and vegetation of all kinds except grass was scanty. I now slowed up, for I didn't want to run into an ambush. Seeing nothing suspicious in the vicinity of the hill from our side, I concluded to circle it, keeping a good offing and a sharp outlook.
"Confound the fellow!" exclaimed the Secretary. "Where can he have gone? He must have a hole in the ground."
"Perhaps he is among the timber on the hill," I said, and upon this thought I ordered the steersman to rise, at the same time turning inward. We had not risen more than 50 feet when Ethan Haight shouted:
"There he goes!"
"Where?" cried Mr. Grantham and I in a breath, running to Ethan's side as he stood by his gun in the bow.
"Low down a'most t'other side o' the hummock," replied Ethan, pointing. "He's as green as a grasshopper, but I kin sight 'im."
And Ethan began to manipulate his gun.
It was several seconds before I succeeded in catching sight of the Chameleon, which, verily, as Ethan had said, was as green as a grasshopper and as hard to spy against the verdure that covered the plane, for she was running almost in contact with the ground. If we had not edged round the hill toward the West so quickly he he would probably have got clean away under the shelter of the hill.
Payton's ruse was so simple and yet so perfectly executed that it made me redden with vexation. Why he had not tried a similar game during the night I could not imagine, unless he thought that he could easily distance us and gave up on that idea after he found that the Osprey was hanging on after daylight. He had merely dropped down on the hither side of the hill, keeping opposite to us, whom he could doubtless see through the tree-tops all the while, and when he found himself on the southern side and we on the northern had stolen away like a slinking fox.
Now he was off for the south at the top of his speed. Already he was fully three miles away and gaining distance at every stroke.
"For heaven's sake, Ethan," I shouted, "why don't you fire?"
"I'm drawing a bead." replied the Gunner. And as he spoke the blue glare leaped from the muzzle. There being no smoke, we could see the flight of the little projectile, which was polished like a billiard ball. He used a solid shot on account of the extreme range. It rose in a flat curve, chased the retreating aero, overtook it in a few seconds, and we believed we could see a few splinters fly.
"Hurrah!" I cried. "Give him another!"
Ethan immediately fired again, but the Chameleon showed no signs of being seriously hurt. In a moment she defiantly waved a black flag and kept on her course.
In the meantime the Skylark, coming up several points eastward of the runaway, altered her course to head Payton off. Then I detected the flash of her guns in quick succession. The two were now not more than a mile and a half apart, and the shots ought to tell.
This time Payton, who had not returned our shots, was more pugnacious. He instantly answered the Skylark's fire, and then they went at it hammer and tongs, using shells, and the Chameleon all the while edging westward.
It was an exciting spectacle, and we watched it in breathless expectation. I fervently prayed that the Skylark's shells might reach a vital point; but, eagerly as I watched, I could not see that they did any damage. We could see them explode on the ground away beyond the Chameleon. Ethan was beside himself.
"The blasted lubbers!" he cried. "They ought to hit a crow at that range!"
Still the firing went on, as we could tell by the faint blue flashes and the rocket-like explosions; but, to my dismay, I saw that it was only the Chameleon's shells that reached their object. She kept low, and the Skylark gradually descended. Suddenly the latter almost turned turtle, then righted herself and began to swing around with drooping wings and finally in slow, eddying circles dropped to the earth.
It was all over with her, as far as the fight was concerned, and everything now again depended on us unless the Crow and the Bobolink should come up.
"They've lost us in the night!" I exclaimed bitterly.
But I was not going to give up. We had run directly over the hill, and I had called on my engineer to outdo all his previous efforts. And he certainly did. The Chameleon did not appear to gain an inch on us. Of course we could not stop to look after the Skylark. I signaled to inquire what the damage was, and Grimes replied:
"Used up. Right forward aeroplanes smashed."
"Can you repair and limp home?"
"Yes, I think so."
"The Crow and the Bobolink are coming. Detain the Bobolink to aid you and send the Crow after us."
Somehow the image of that poor girl, whom I had never seen, was becoming more and more clearly imprinted on my mind. I began to feel a personal interest in her rescue and a corresponding detestation of Alfonso Payton. I imagined her looking to us—looking to me—to save her, and I vowed that I would do it. Love at first sight has become a commonplace, but if I had stopped to analyze my feelings I might have concluded that my case was one of love without site.
We were actually gaining on the chase!
The Osprey for some time had been making 139.8 miles, a little better than her best during the night. I estimated that the Chameleon had dropped to not over 139. At this rate we should overhaul her in the course of five hours. In two hours we should be within effective range, and an hour later we ought to be near enough to enable Ethan to knock her aeroplanes to splinters.
The Gunner was already fuming with impatience and continually consulting with his rangefinder, changing the elevation of his gun and drawing imaginary beads.
"I'll bet a Connecticut cigar," he said as I passed him on my rounds, "that when I git anuther chanst I'll put a shot into him that'll stop 'im."
"I'll give you word when to begin firing," I said. "Don't hull him, for you might injure or kill the prisoners, but aim for the aeroplanes."
"I know how to wing a duck, lootenant," he returned. "Ef the range hadn't been so pesky long this mornin' one o' his flippers 'u'd never 'a' flopped ag'in."
"I believe you did hurt him, Ethan," I said. "I can't otherwise account for his lack of speed. Last night he gained on us; now we are gaining on him. Our speed is a trifle better than it was, but not enough to explain the difference."
"I knowed it, lootenant! I knowed that shot wasn't altogether for nuthin'."
Payton now gradually increased his elevation until he almost reached the level of the lower clouds, and at the same time the Chameleon again underwent changes of color, turning first sky-blue and afterward white, when it became difficult at times to find her against the dazzling cloud surfaces and pale sky.
I wondered what the fellow would do now that we were unmistakably drawing up on him. But when we had got just within range and Ethan was drawing a bead in earnest Payton lost not a second in deciding what to do. He swung the Chameleon broadside to, and an ugly blue flash showed at each end of her simultaneously. We anxiously awaited the arrival of the projectiles, and at the same time Ethan fired. Unlike a ship, an aero when she is broadside to presents a more difficult mark, because then her aeroplanes are seen more or less edgewise.
Both of the Chameleon's shots passed under us, but Ethan's was better pitched, and our glasses showed that the solid projectile had hit one of her "flippers," as he called them. He followed with another, which was effective near the same spot. A moment later both of the Chameleon's guns spit blue fire again; but, as before, they were aimed too low, and the shot went whistling a good 150 feet below us.
"Why don't you swing round and give him both your guns, too?" asked the Secretary.
"Because," I replied, "I want to run him down. Now, Ethan, keep it up."
Ethan's third shot hit the same aeroplane that had already been touched. If it had been a shell it might have demolished it, but the Chameleon's conduct showed that the damage was not yet serious enough to stop her or even hinder her action.
However, she fired no more, but instead turned tail. Evidently Payton, finding that he was receiving more damage than he could inflict, meant to trust again to his heels.
"That won't save him!" I exclaimed exultantly. "We've got him now. He is worse damaged than he was, and if he couldn't outfoot us then his got no chance now."
While I was speaking I noticed that the Chameleon had turned almost directly skyward. Beyond and above during the flight a huge white cloud had come sailing up. Payton made directly for this cloud, and hardly two minutes had escaped when Ethan called out:
"Gone into the cloud, by thunder, and disappeared!"
It was exactly true. The Chameleon was instantly swallowed from our sight. We could see where she had entered the cloud by the commotion of the vapors.
"Up and after him!" I shouted to the steersman.
With all speed we darted at the cloud and entered it. I calculated that he would run straight through it and then make a turn on the other side but I thought we could get there in time to catch him at his antics. So we shot straight through the cloud.
But Payton knew or divined what I didn't. Beyond this cloud lay two others, separated by a considerable interval, but on the same level. As we emerged on the other side of the first we came in sight of the others, one to the right, the other to the left. The Chameleon was nowhere to be seen. She had evidently crossed the narrow open space and disappeared again into one of the clouds.
But which one? A sudden inspiration came to me.
"Send a five second timed shell into each of those clouds while we hold our course," I said to Ethan.
Those shells were so contrived that their fuses were started by the discharge of the gun. It was like shooting into a thicket at a suspected deer, and I regretted the order the moment it had left my lips, but it was too late for a countermand. Ethan's first mark was the right-hand cloud. I had never seen a projectile fired into a cloud, and the effect surprised us all.
As the projectile dived into the round, marble-looking mass of vapor a minute hole seemed to open, and round this instantly played a rayed halo of brief lightning flashes. Then the vapor a hundred yards on all sides was thrown into commotion, turning inward in streaming lines to follow the shell. This was well-timed, for apparently it exploded in the very center of the cloud, which afterward appeared to be agitated by contending winds, while boiling rifts opened at various places. But the mass was too dense to give us a view through it.
In a few seconds the second shell had penetrated the other cloud and exploded within it, but the phenomena were now less marked.
Meanwhile we held straight on our course between the two clouds, because I expected to find the Chameleon on the other side of one or the other of them. In this I was disappointed. When we ran out into the clear space on the farther side there was not an aero in sight.
MY amazement and disappointment for a moment unnerved me. I glanced up and down on all sides, but not a thing was visible except the clouds, the blue sky and the green earth. I stopped the motors, and for a few minutes we hung there, debating what to do. For the first time in his life perhaps, for he was not a profane man, the Secretary muttered "D___!"
"Lootenant," said Ethan at last, "I know what he's done—he's turned inside the cloud!"
The truth at once flashed upon us. There was no doubt about it—he had tricked us again!
"Curse him!" I exclaimed. "He shall never get away. Reverse the course and then full speed ahead."
It was at least a year since I had seen the picture of Helen Grayman in the Sunday paper, but now her face rose before me as clearly as if she had stood there—those large, beautiful eyes; that open, frank, winning countenance. I felt that it was my chase, and I forgot everything except that I must save her.
Which of the two clouds had the Chameleon used as cover? I determined to run back straight between the two and straight through the third larger cloud, which we had already traversed, hoping to find Payton escaping in that direction.
[A A show the position of the Chameleon, first when we saw her enter the cloud and, second, after her escape. The long closed line, curving around and through the clouds, indicates the path that she followed. B B show the positions of the Osprey at the beginning and the end of this strange battle, and the dotted line indicates the course that she pursued. Short dotted lines, leading to each of the smaller clouds, show our shell fire, and it is evident that we narrowly missed the Chameleon, which must have been close to the point where the second shell exploded.]
In order to make clear the situation as it now developed I must ask the readers attention to the diagram above.
By the time that we had got out into the open beyond the two small clouds Payton had completed his turn and re-entered the large cloud. Keeping to the left as soon as he was within it, he ran nearly its whole length and finally emerged only to dodge behind the other small cloud.
He was evidently a master of strategy.
Here he ran the only serious risk of discovery during the entire maneuver, for if we had returned more promptly we might have been just in time to catch the sight of him as he passed the opening between the clouds.
But we were too late, and while the Osprey was dashing headlong on her return through the large cloud the Chameleon rounded the small one and was off at full speed in exactly the opposite direction. No sooner was the air clear of vapor then we looked about with all eyes and were met by the same disappointment. The Chameleon was not there!
"Perhaps one of your shells found him," suggested Mr. Grantham, "and broke him up so that he has dropped to the ground unperceived."
It was a startling possibility, and I gave orders to drop down within 100 feet of the ground. Running back, we began to use the utmost circumspection in examining the surface beneath us. It was mostly level and covered with irregular growths of trees and brush, with into spaces of grassy land. We may have spent half an hour in this search when the penetrating eyes of Ethan Haight discovered a new surprise for us.
"Lootenant, lootenant!" he called out. "There he is again!"
I glanced hastily at Ethan. He was pointing south-southwest, his hand raised above the level of his eyes. I looked, and we all looked, but could see nothing. Still Ethan insisted:
"Jest ag'in thet cloud with a head on it. It's him as sure as preachin'."
In a few moments I had the object located, a moving speck against the cloud, and set out instantly in pursuit.
I could recall well enough the relative situation and dimensions of the clouds to see that he had timed his movements to mine, which he must have foreseen with Napoleonic penetration, so that his moments of entering and leaving the clouds and of crossing the interspace would so fall as to keep him always concealed from us behind a curtain of vapor. He must have forecast with absolute assurance that our final dart backward, which simply superadded our speed to his in widening the distance between us.
It was a bitter dose for me, but I swallowed it and fixed my mind with redoubled resolution upon the rescue of Helen Grayman.
Mr. Grantham noted my chagrin and kindly said:
"No matter, Allan. He's yours yet. I caused you to waste half an hour by my useless suggestion. Now go ahead, and I promise to be guilty of no more stupid interference."
"It's not your fault at all, Mr. Grantham," I replied warmly. "I should have done what I did if you had not spoken."
The Secretary gave me a pressure of the hand and I felt greatly encouraged, for I knew I should have his support however the thing turned out. So I visited Jim and incited him to renewed efforts.
"Get her up to 140," I said. "We've another and a last chance."
"I'll do it or bust her," he grimly replied.
We did go at astonishing speed, and no long time elapsed before our gain was so great that I told Ethan to be ready.
"Shells this time," I said. "We'll not begin to fight until we are within easy range, and I want you to pelt him without mercy. Only," I added, "aim for the aeroplanes and save the whole. The Chameleon carries the richest girl in the world and we've got her father aboard here."
"I'm not a-goin' to tech a hair o' her head, lootenant," replied Ethan, with, I thought, a knowing grin. I've been to the show in my day, an' I know all about Romeo an' 'is Jooliett."
I felt my face burn and turned away. This practical-minded Yankee evidently had his romantic side, too, and had penetrated a secret of which I did not dare to think myself.
I do not believe that the Chameleon was now making more than a hundred and thirty-five at the most, and in a couple of hours we had her almost within range. As we drew nearer Payton evidently saw that the game was up and that his only course was to fight.
He ran up his black flag and dressed his flier from stem to stern in the same color, thus stamping her silhouette with startling distinctness against the rising clouds beyond and giving her an aspect so fierce and menacing that I saw some of my men regarding her and one another with doubtful looks and shrugs.
I called to Jim to pile on the speed once more and to Ethan to follow the range and announce it to me every half minute.
"Four mile!" he presently sung out—"three mile an' a half"—
Before he called again a vast smoke-bellied cloud which had been piling its golden pagodas up into the sunshine above seemed to make a sudden rush all along its front and at the same time crinkled with lightning. In an astonishingly brief time its advance had reached the Chameleon, while flanking vapors ran out like a charge of cavalry and began to envelop us.
The sweep of the storm was so sudden and swift that almost in a moment the Chameleon vanished, and then the Osprey was swallowed up with darkness, illuminated now and then by venomous lightning-bolts.
The thunder growled and rattled all about us, and the aero lunged and pitched so dangerously that I advised Mr. Grayman and the Secretary to take refuge in the cabin. My men managed the flier superbly, and in a few minutes the storm passed, and we found ourselves in a valley of cloud-land—blue sky overhead, thunderclouds piled like vast rocks all around and the earth beneath hidden with dark nimbus.
Beyond the nearer clouds the vapor peaks rose glittering in the sunshine like snow-clad mountains.
Then I caught sight of the Chameleon, also inclosed in a cloud-walled valley, not more than a quarter of a mile off. Gigantic in the magnifying mist, she was just pushing out of the scud, her great aeroplanes looking as funereal as mighty palls and her black flag whipping in the wind.
She was broadside to, and Payton's eye had been as quick as mine. His action was quicker.
Hardly five seconds had elapsed from the moment that we caught sight of one another when both his guns spit their blue flashes, and the shells screamed so close but I wondered at our escape. I yelled an order to the steersman to bring our bow in line with the Chameleon, meaning to run her down, but before we had swung into the desired position she fired twice again and once more narrowly missed her aim.
Ethan was ready now, and the word "Fire!" had hardly left my lips before his gun responded and knocked one of Payton's aeroplanes into a shapeless fluttering mass. His second shell burst aboard her sending my heart into my throat in the fear that it had killed half the people she carried.
"Careful, Ethan!" I shouted. "Remember the prisoners!"
"All right, lootenant," he replied; "but, blast him, he's fooled us long enough!"
Before either side could fire again, the Chameleon was once more swallowed from sight by boiling, sulphur-tinted vapors, and, as before, the Osprey, too, was immediately involved in the second rush of the storm. This time the glare of the lightning and the vicious raps of thunder were almost incessant. We had all we could do to retain an upright position on the pitching and swaying deck. Yet again the storm passed quickly, leaving us in another blue-domed and vapor-bottomed atmospheric valley among the flashing thunder-heads. And there still was the Chameleon, like a black demon of the air, awaiting us.
The battle was instantly resumed with greater impetuosity than before, as if the electric fury of the tempest had entered into our blood.
Still Payton presented his broadside, circling to keep out of reach, while I endeavored to close, and Ethan peppered him with the bow gun.
Having two guns in action to our one, Payton pumped the shells into us with a caution, but his aim was wild compared with Ethan's superb gunnery. Still, they managed to cut up our rigging, tore a few holes in our deck and finally sent a shell aboard us that wounded two men and knocked over Mr. Grayman, who, with the Secretary, had insisted upon remaining on deck, with a flying splinter.
Mr. Grantham ran to his aid, and I sent a man to help carry him into the cabin.
Whish! Whish! Whish! Rattle! Crack! went the sounds of the guns and the exploding shells, mingled at times with the deep growls of thunder from the encircling clouds, which menaced another rush, as if we in turn had stimulated them to renewed violence. But they held off while the fight to a finish between the Chameleon and the Osprey went on.
Presently one of our aeroplanes was knocked endwise; then our steering machinery was damaged. The latter injury caused us to swing round so that our stern gun also came into play, and the gunner, Eaton—a good man, too—incited by Ethan's splendid work and eager to take his share in it, began to fire without orders. Of course I let him go on, and the battle became fiercer than ever.
Payton sent us some more smashers, and I felt by the staggering of the Osprey that she was mortally injured; but, after all, that did not greatly trouble me, since it was plain that the Chameleon was in a far worse plight.
Ethan was a sight to make one's nerves tingle. His eyes flashed, his strong arms worked with the precision of walking beams, and this perspiration streamed from his face.
"Bully for you, Ethan!" I shouted enthusiastically. "You've kept your word. The Chameleon will never fly again."
"The blasted turncoat!" He replied, again citing his gun. "I knowed I'd put an end to her cavortin's. Change yer color ag'in, will ye, ye blasted grasshopper! Scoot inter a cloud ag'in if ye kin, durn ye!"
Ethan had but just uttered these words when a shell whizzed aboard, exploded under his gun and sent it flying, end over end, down into the scudding clouds beneath us. Ethan was toppled over, but immediately sprang to his feet, a trickle of blood running down his cheek, braced himself and stared.
I never saw on a mortals face such a look of blank astonishment and chagrin. For a minute he could not speak. Then he found his tongue and uttered but a single word:
In spite of the excitement I burst into a roar of laughter.
"Never mind, Ethan," I said. "You have finished the Chameleon."
And so, indeed, he had. Payton's famous flier was knocked all out of shape. I wondered how she kept afloat. As she could not get away and had manifestly fired her last shot, I ordered Eaton also to cease firing.
The last shot of the Chameleon's, which gave her her revenge on the gun that had put an end to her career, was fired, as we learned afterward, by Payton himself.
The victory was ours, although the Osprey was not in a much better condition than her conquered antagonist.
Suddenly, while I hesitated about my next step, a parachute dropped from the Chameleon.
"Good heavens, Allan!" cried the Secretary, who had returned to my side after finding that Mr. Grayman's injury was trifling. "Payton is escaping. If he gets safe to the ground the fox will be in his hole again."
"He shall never get there!" I exclaimed and at the words I seized the wheel, determined to swing the Osprey around in some way so that she could catch the parachute. The parachute umbrella had opened promptly, and it was descending in long swings. In a few moments we were almost upon it, but I saw that we should pass a little to one side and above it. There was but one chance. Putting my pistol in my teeth, I sprang out with both arms wide apart. Luckily I succeeded in grasping a rope of the parachute as I shot downward. The Osprey rushed on, and I was left suspended in midair, the parachute lurching and gyrating with my added and misplaced weight.
I had heard a shout of dismay from Mr. Grantham as I plunged overboard but the instant I felt the rope in my fingers I had no fear.
I had taken my resolution that Alfonso Payton should not escape, and I meant to kill him.
I slipped down the rope sailorwise, seizing my pistol from my teeth as I landed in a heap in the basket. Instantly recovering my feet, I swung round furiously to face Payton and finish him. But my raised pistol dropped from my hand, for, I saw—Helen Grayman.
HALF stupefied with surprise, I glanced around and saw, besides Miss Grayman, only her maid. The parachute, righting itself, descended more swiftly than before.
"Good heavens, Miss Grayman!" I exclaimed. "What are you doing here? Where is Payton?"
For answer to my last question she had only strength enough to point upward. I glanced towards the wreck of the Chameleon, hanging black and torn to shreds above us, and saw a second parachute dropping from it almost in our track.
Then I understood the situation. Miss Grayman had in some manner managed to get away with Susan, and now Payton was pursuing them.
We had a long start, but Payton was following the same line, and it was evident that he would touch the earth in almost the same spot. But I was not dismayed, and I felt wrought up to a heroic temper when Miss Grayman clung to my arm, sobbing:
"Oh, sir, help us! Save us! My God, what will become of me?"
"Have no fear, Miss Grayman," I said, summoning all the steadiness of nerve that I possessed. "I will save you."
There must have been a great deal of meaning and of encouragement in my words, for a faint color and a look of relief came in to the girl's wan face.
Save her! I would have encountered an army in her cause.
I was too anxious that we should make a safe landing to pay much attention to Payton at present. I inspected the ground beneath us and saw, as we got nearer, that we were likely to come down in a marsh. But there was solid ground, brush-covered, near, and by desperate exertions, throwing all my weight to one side, I succeeded in swaying the parachute toward the dry land, so that finally we struck a very good place, the basket alighting with but a slight shock in a clump of low, leafy bushes.
I had hardly assisted Miss Grayman and the maid out of the tangle when there was a splash in the water close by, announcing the arrival of Payton's parachute. I heard one of his men swear horribly at the fix in which they found themselves, for the water, with soft mud under it, must have been three feet deep.
In a moment I thought of trying to take them at a disadvantage, shooting them down before they could extricate themselves. But I could not see their exact location, and, looking around, my eye lighted upon a pile of great rocks which rose above the brushwood not more than thirty rods from where we stood.
"Come," I said, taking Miss Grayman's hand; "we shall be safer on those rocks."
She was trembling like a leaf, and the maid could hardly stand.
"Miss Grayman," I said, putting all my heart into my words, "you must please have confidence in me. I have left your father in the aero, and I hope that he, with plenty of help, will be able soon to reach us. In the meantime trust in me. I would give up my life to protect you, and I know that I can protect you. I am an officer in the service of the United States government, and the Secretary of the Treasury himself is with your father in the aero. You know that we have destroyed Payton's Chameleon, and he himself will soon be in our hands."
During this speech I had being hurrying them toward the rocks, for I heard the floundering of Payton and his men in the marsh and knew that they were fast extricating themselves. My words had the happiest effect upon Miss Grayman. She glanced at me with the first cheerful look that I had seen upon her face.
"What is your name, please?"
"I am Lieutenant John Allan of the Revenue Service and in command of the expedition fitted out by Secretary Grantham for your rescue."
"Lieutenant Allan," she replied "you have performed an act of splendid daring. May God reward you for it."
My heart thumped against my ribs, but I made no attempt to reply. Instead I quickened our steps. In a few minutes more we had reached the rocks.
There was a clear space around them, and they were rough and precipitous. "An excellent fortification," I said to myself.
The highest point may have been forty feet above the surrounding plain. I immediately scrambled up, drawing the girls after me. When we reached the top we found a slight depression in which we could conceal ourselves from the eyes of any person below, while from the rim I could command the approaches on every side. I placed Miss Grayman and Susan where they were perfectly protected and then, pistol in hand, crept to the edge and carefully looked over in the direction of the marsh.
Afar off I saw the Osprey speeding away on the course that I had given her and which they had evidently been unable to control. The Chameleon still hung tattered overhead, slowly circling. I had scarcely raised my head a little higher when I caught sight of Payton in the brush, calling and gesticulating to his men, who soon came into sight behind him. They were all dripping and bedaubed with mud, and a more savage-looking trio I never beheld. To my dismay I saw that they all carried rifles.
I had no weapon but my automatic pistol, which contained 10 shots, besides 20 in my belt. It was a slight preparation for a siege, but I had the advantage of the natural fortification of the rocks.
And now a new cause of anxiety presented itself. It was evident that the Chameleon was gradually being brought to earth. I saw signals exchanged between her and Payton. His men on the Chameleon had seen us, and I saw from their motions that they were pointing us out.
He knew how to manage his campaign. He sent his two men around to the northeast and northwest sides, while he himself guarded the south. Then we were surrounded.
The question now was, how large a re-enforcement would Payton receive when his aero succeeded in landing? Miss Grayman thought five had fallen. In that case our enemies would number only five in all, and Payton's accession of force would be two men. Still, it would be terrible odds, since they had guns and I only a pistol.
The open ground around us was sufficiently broad to require several minutes for a runner to cross it. My task was to keep a sharp watch on all sides and prevent an approach.
I ran around the parapet, as I may call it, peering out in every direction. Miss Grayman, comprehending what I was about and seeing my difficulty, offered to aid me. I refused at first, fearing to expose her to a shot, but she eagerly insisted and I let her take the northern side, instructing her to peer through the interstices in the broken rocks, but not to show even her head.
Presently a shot came from the northeast side and spattered on the rock close by her head. She screamed and dropped through fright, and I sprang to her side, with a terrible fear that she had been hit. She was all right, however, and I pulled her to the center of the inclosure and sprang back to my watch.
After a while the Chameleon came down in the brush close to the point where our parachute lay. Payton disappeared, and another man took his place. The way in which they exposed themselves in surrounding the rocks convinced me that Payton knew very well that I had no other weapon than a pistol.
I now told Miss Grayman to renew her watch, being extremely careful not to expose the least part of her person and to give me warning if anyone tried to approach the rocks from her side. I did not know at what moment the rush might come.
There were yet several hours of daylight, and if I could stand Payton off long enough I felt confident that our friends on the Osprey would manage to ground her if they could not reverse her course and would come to our rescue. I counted a great deal on the sagacity of Mr. Grantham and the experience and devotion of Ethan Haight.
On the other hand, we were without provisions and water. I felt the more sure that Payton would make a rush because he must understand that aid would reach us before long, and I was puzzled at his delay after the arrival of his two men from the Chameleon.
But presently I discovered the reason and felt my face turn pale. Out of the brush where the Chameleon lay a kite began to rise.
The wind was in such a direction as to carry it directly over us. I knew instantly what it meant, and it made my heart sink. Without explaining my motives, for they had not seen the kite, I immediately led the two girls into a corner of the rocks where a ledge projected so as to make a kind of roof, while in front of the bear's den thus formed another ledge rose, leaving only an irregular, narrow opening. I hurried them in here, saying: "I think they are going to fire a shell at us, but in here you will be perfectly safe," and I turned to leave them.
"But you," exclaimed Miss Grayman, detaining me, with an expression of concern that thrilled me—"you must not expose yourself while we are covered!"
"I'll look for cover." I returned, "but I must first make sure what they are about."
I knew well enough what they were about. It was evident now that the Chameleon carried the dropping bombs that were used in war, and that Payton was going to drop one of these missiles upon us with the aid of the kite, another military device which at that time had come into use as an auxiliary in such cases.
If the top of the rocks had been as exposed as he naturally concluded it would be, his cunning would have had its reward, and we should have been blown to bits; or, at the very least, put hors de combat so that he could safely rush the stronghold.
I watched the manipulation of the kite with the keenest anxiety, hoping that some accident would come to it. But Payton was skillful, and in a few minutes he had it poised exactly over the top of the rocks. I was familiar with such tactics. I could see the round black bomb depending from it, and the string that controlled its descent, the pulling of which would cause it to fall. In my desperation I took a quick aim with my pistol and fired, for the thing was not 100 feet above us, hoping to cause an explosion in the air. But of course I missed, and an instant afterward I saw the string jerked and the fearful missile began its descent. I ran and dodged into a sloping crevice at the side of the inclosure.
In two or three seconds the explosion occurred. The effects were fearful. It shook the whole rocky eminence, sent fragments flying in every direction and ground the rock where the bomb struck to powder. I felt an excruciating pain in my left ankle, which had been left exposed, and I was out of my hiding place and in a moment, limping to a peephole. At the same moment Miss Grayman appeared, ashy pale and trembling.
All now happened as I had expected. Payton, seeing that he had hit the exact spot aimed at, shouted to his men and came running forward. Another man ran at his side.
"Quick to your lookout!" I called to Miss Grayman; "but, for God's sake, don't show yourself!"
At the same time I got ready for Payton. I meant to make sure of him now. Hardly a second had elapsed when Miss Grayman said in a frightened voice:
"Three men are coming on a run!"
"I will take care of them," I replied. "Keep yourself undercover."
It was Payton that I wanted. He being disposed of, I felt in my exaltation equal to dealing with the others. The pirate and his companions ran with the speed of deer. Presently he was within twenty-five yards. I could not be mistaken in him—a broad breasted mark, making straight for my pistol, leveled through a triangular crevice. I felt that I could not miss him, and growling through my clinched teeth, "I've got you now!" I fired.
But at that very instant Payton's foot caught and down he fell, my bullet singing over him. His wits worked like lightning. He had heard the shot, and instead of rising he rolled into a depression.
I knew I had not hit him, but I could not see him where he lay.
The other man came on at full speed, bringing his rifle to his shoulder as he began to ascend the rocks. I shot him down as I would a mad dog.
Cursing the mischance that had made me miss Payton, but not daring to wait longer for a second opportunity, I dashed to Miss Grayman's side just in time to see the three men clambering up the lower rocks. Having them at a disadvantage, when the difficult climbing prevented them from handling their weapons, I leaped upon the rim and fired point blank at the nearest, who went down in a heap.
Then I sent a shot at each of the others, but with what affect I could not tell.
Both instantly disappeared, and I darted back again, fearing that Payton had recovered his feet and was advancing. But I could see no trace of him.
For a moment I debated whether, after all, I might not have hit him. But no; I had seen too clearly the cause of his fall.
I was tempted to run down to the place where he had dropped, but was restrained by uncertainty as to what had become of the other two men. When I returned to Miss Grayman she said that she had not seen them.
Our peril was as great as ever, perhaps greater, for the enemy was hidden.
What was to happen next? What were they planning now?
NOW this double disappearance began to trouble me. At last I could endure the uncertainty no longer, and, clambering down the northern face of the rocks, I found the man I had shot there, dead, but no trace of the others. They had evidently got clean away.
The fact that I was not disturbed in this reconnaissance encouraged me to try and another on the southern side.
I crept cautiously down to the spot where Payton had fallen, found the depression into which he had rolled and saw that it was the dry bed of a brook, by following which he could have crawled away to the brush unnoticed.
Was he preparing a second bomb or had he some other resource of which I knew nothing?
I climbed painfully up the rocks again, for now my ankle, the injury to which I had forgotten in the excitement of the defense, began to trouble me.
As I dropped upon a stone in the middle of the inclosure, Miss Grayman first noticed that I had been hurt. She turned pale and again showed a concern on my account that I could not attribute solely to the fear that she might be deprived of her only defender. She insisted that I should take off my shoe and stocking and, calling Susan, who had recovered from her shock, aided me with the utmost tenderness to bind up a deep cut made by a fragment of the bomb or of rock.
When she had finished she said to me, with a pleading look; "Please, Lieutenant Allan, don't expose yourself as you have been doing. I was in agony when I saw you venturing down the rocks. What should we do—what should I do—if you were seriously hurt or killed?"
Then she covered her eyes, and I saw tears trickling down her hands. I would not have change places with the President of the United States. I felt proud, gratified, heroic, romantic, brave as a lion, capable as a general, ready to do anything and everything to serve her who had shown this interest in me.
In short, I knew now that I was in love to the tops of my ears, and I felt that I might hope for a response to this mighty affection which was now overmastering me. I assured Miss Grayman that for her sake I would be more careful, and the gladness in her eyes made me forget everything else—everything except the necessity of defending her. This thought sent me back in haste to our rampart.
We watched and watched, but not a living thing did we see except a few birds and some small animals dodging about among the rocks. Thus the afternoon passed, and the sun sank low in the northwest.
We suffered from lack of water more than that of food, and I resolved that as soon as it grew dark enough I would creep down to the edge of the brush, where I had noticed a small stream, and fill my helmet with water. But I did not tell Miss Grayman of my design, feeling sure that she would oppose it. Her suffering, however, was so painfully evident that I would have ventured anything in order to relieve her.
By this time, although I could hardly credit so gratifying a suggestion, I began to think that Payton had stolen away in despair of being able to capture or kill us and fearful of the arrival of our friends.
"He cannot hope to get the ransom," I argued, "and why, then, should he further risk his life and liberty?"
As I continued to ruminate upon this I became so convinced that I had hit upon the real explanation of the cessation of his efforts that I spoke about it to Miss Grayman and told her of my plan for getting water.
At first she vigorously opposed me, but I presented the matter so clearly that finally she gave in to my opinion.
The time seemed endless before the day became sufficiently dark to render my attempt safe against possible detection. I crawled down the rocks, keeping in the darkest places, and then wound my way over the open ground until I reached the place where Payton took his tumble. From this I followed the dry rivulet already spoken of until I attained the brush. This rivulet was a tributary of a larger stream which ran over a pebbly bottom, the cold water collecting in little pools. I took a long drink and filled my helmet.
Although more and more convinced that I had nothing to fear from lurking enemies, I did not relax my caution, thinking of the stake I had in the security of Miss Grayman, and once more I got down on my knees to cross the open space.
I had not progressed more than a dozen yards from the edge of the brush when a scream broke the stillness. It came from the summit of the rocks.
My pulse stopped beating, but instantaneously I sprang to my feet, dropped my helmet, drew my pistol and shouting I knew not what, ran with all my speed toward the rocks. I heard another scream, muffled and cut short, and madly as I ran, without aim or object, I fired my pistol three or four times.
"Helen! Helen!" I shouted.
There was no reply, of course. I could hear a scrambling, however, on the other side of the huge pile, and it occurred to me that I could make a swifter progress by skirting the steep rocks. Accordingly I ran round them, but when I arrived on the opposite side there was not a sound or a moving thing in sight.
I had in my pocket a small electric lamp of my own contrivance, which I always carried and which had a mirror throwing a bright shaft of light to a considerable distance. I now brought this into requisition and with it carefully swept round on all sides.
Nothing was to be seen except the rocks, the ground and the distant brush.
"They may still be on the summit," I thought, and hastily I began to mount. I had made but a few upward steps when an arm stole swiftly and silently around my neck, and in an instant I was throttled in the grasp of a man whose strength, combined with the advantage of his position, made my struggles unavailing.
A knee was pressed remorselessly against the small of my back, and in less time than it takes to tell it was I lying prone on the rocks, rendered powerless by the cruel pressure on my throat and back.
I had always been something of an athlete, but I could do nothing now. My pistol had fallen from my hand, but I could not have used it if I had had it.
In another minute my arms were pinioned behind, and then my captor without a word rolled me face upward, and by the light of the fallen lamp I saw that he was an Indian.
A savage grin over spread his features. "Wah!" he said. "Much bear hug! Don't like him, huh? Come! Must go quick!"
He jerked me to my feet and pulled me down to the level ground. Then, still grasping the bonds about my arms, he began to drag me toward the brush.
The Indian had picked up my lamp and my pistol. The latter he thrust into his belt; the former he kept in his hand. He seemed sufficiently familiar with its use and employed it to light the way.
"White man's eye," he said. "Good to see in night."
As we entered the bushes he uttered a whoop, which was immediately answered by a shout, and in a few minutes we passed into a small open space where, without the aid of the lamp, there was twilight enough to have enabled me to recognize the forms of a woman and two men.
I heard the words, "Oh, my God, he is taken!" in the voice of Miss Grayman, and she moved quickly toward me, but a hand arrested her, and a man's voice, singularly sweet and thrilling with its strange, sympathetic quality, which belied the irony of its words, said: "Ah! Another little romance, I see, Miss Grayman. Your suitors pursue you even in the darkness. But we will have no tender scenes here if you please. John," he continued, addressing the Indian, "hand me that lamp."
The Indian handed it over, and Payton turned off the light.
"We want none of that here either," he said.
Then he approached me so near that I could make out his features in the dim light.
"You are Lieutenant Allan," he said. "It may comfort your heart, lieutenant, which will not enjoy many more thrills in this world, to hear that I learned your name from the lips of the dear girl for whom you have sold your life. Allow me to congratulate you, by the way, on your excellent plan of campaign and on your ability in grand tactics as well as strategics.
"I confess," he continued, "that I do not comprehend how you found us at the lodge, but it is no matter. No man ever had the better of Alfonso Payton for long, and all who have ever tried conclusions with him have ended the same way."
During this speech, uttered with pitiless sarcasm, but in a perfectly cool, even voice, I saw Miss Grayman convulsively cover her face with her hands and begin to sob.
The sight and the sound gave me for the moment the strength and fury of a demon. The Indian had let go of me to hand the lamp to Payton, but the other man had taken his place. I threw this man off with a sudden lurch and then dashed at Payton with lowered head.
I had been a football player in my student days, and I knew how to break the line. But Payton was as quick as I. He stepped aside, and I found myself plunged headfirst into the brush on the other side of the little opening.
Not having the use of my hands, I fell on my face, and instantly Payton and the Indian were on my back. I struggled madly, but it was all in vain. In a few minutes I was rendered helpless by cords bound about my arms and legs.
"Take him up," commanded Payton, still in a cool voice, although he was panting a little from the exertion.
The Indian and the other man seized me by shoulders and feet and began to carry me.
"It is too near the rocks to finish him," said Payton. "They make too good a landmark. Carry him along, and when we reach a good place we will put him where we put Mr. Green, who was so unreasonable not long ago."
After I had become quiet, through necessity, Miss Grayman who was close ahead of us and directly behind Payton, who led the way, held back a little and said to me in tones that went to my inmost heart: "Lieutenant Allan—John—if you die, I shall die too. Oh, I could never live!"
I knew what such words, uttered in such a presence, must have cost her, and I blessed her with all my soul. The poor, poor girl! What a terrible situation for such a confession to be forced from her lips! But she felt that it might be the only opportunity that she would ever have uttered the feelings of her heart, and I had made plain enough to her where my heart was.
"Helen," I replied, "God bless you forever for speaking to me like that. But do not think of dying. I am not dead yet, and—
In an exasperatingly cool voice Payton, without apparently turning his head, broke in: "Don't flatter yourself, Lieutenant Allan. She will forget you soon enough. That is the way with women. Why, it's only a little while since she was as cheerful as a lark in my company."
Oh, heaven, heaven! What frenzy, what delirium of fury, was this for me! With insensate struggles I tried again to get at the demon until the Indian struck me a blow upon the head that dazed me.
But Miss Grayman avenged herself not as she should have been avenged, but like an insulted and infuriated and desperate woman. She sprang to Payton's side and with all her force smote him upon the mouth. Even in the darkness she could see the wild flash that shot into his eyes, but if he raised his hand it was instantly lowered again, and he did not touch her.
Twice again, with all her woman's strength, she struck him full in the face. Then, like a woman, too, she staggered and fell in a swoon.
THE dramatic episode which ended with the fainting of Miss Grayman of course caused a halt. I inwardly raged at not being able to go to her assistance and equally at seeing Payton kneel at her side, opening my lamp and throwing its light upon her colorless face.
He took a flask from his pocket and pressed it to her lips. In a few minutes she opened her eyes and stared around. Then her look fell upon me, and she smiled.
How my heart bounded! And again I struggled vainly to reach her, but she put up her hand, smiling once more, and motioned me to be quiet. Love her! Heaven knows how I loved her!
"I could die happy," I thought, "if only I could rescue her from that devil."
Then for the first time the absence of the maid Susan and of the third man impressed itself upon my mind.
As to the man I hoped that, after all, I had killed him, but the fact that Susan had been left behind gave me a gleam of hope. If only our friends could find her she might be of invaluable aid in putting them quickly on the right track.
How I did pray that they had come and that they would follow us.
In five minutes, perhaps, Miss Grayman had fully recovered, and Payton immediately directed an advance. I noticed that Payton always chose the driest ground, and the most open places in the brush in order evidently to leave as few indications as possible of a trail and occasionally the Indian stopped and carefully replaced branches that had been broken or brushed aside.
This gave me the idea of struggling whenever I had the strength in order to leave ineffaceable marks of our passage. But I had not long assayed these tactics before the Indian gave me another blow upon the head with the butt of my own pistol, which left me senseless.
It must have been a considerable time that I hung limp in the hands of my bearers. When at last I opened my eyes and stared about I was lying on the ground. There was a light from my lamp, which Payton held in his hand, directing its rays upon the ground a short distance away. Beside me on the moist ground knelt Miss Grayman, tears shining on her cheeks, while her hand rested, as in benediction, upon my brow.
I could see that her lips were moving silently. Opposite to her in the shadow appeared the motionless form of the Indian, guarding us.
As my eyes opened she gave a little cry, and, leaning over, pressed her lips to my forehead. I struggled to raise my head and to touch her with my bound hands. She gently stroked my face and then burst into uncontrollable weeping.
The Indian looked at her with indifference, and Payton paid no attention.
Then I noticed the sound of digging in wet, sticky soil. I twisted my head toward the spot where the full illumination of the lamp fell and saw the man who had helped the Indian to carry me turning up the dripping mud with a broad sabre-like bayonet. The terrible truth burst upon me. They were going to bury me in the swamp!
In the awful flood of emotions that rolled over me one thought, one resistless longing, rode upon the surface. I turned my face toward Miss Grayman and spoke her name.
Instantly she tried to dry her tears and to suppress her sobs. Our eyes met, and, reading the wish that was in my heart, she put her face close to mine. "John, dear John," she faltered with infant tenderness.
Then our lips met.
God! What a betrothal!
Immediately she fell to sobbing again, but the soft pressure of her hand remained on my forehead and comforted me even in that dreadful moment.
Presently Payton, still holding the light for the grave-digger, spoke impatiently.
"Hurry up," he said. "You are too slow. We must cover the dog and be off."
The man redoubled his efforts, and the glairy clay squeaked and sucked as his bayonet tore it up.
In a few minutes Payton spoke again: "That'll do. Now, throw him in."
The man approached me, and the Indian rose from his heels.
"Why, he's come to!" the man exclaimed.
"No matter," said Payton. "Do as I tell you."
Both stooped to lift me. But before they could raise me from the ground Helen had thrown herself at Payton's feet.
"God in heaven!" she cried. "Commodore Brown, can you do such a thing? They say that you are Alfonso Payton, the pirate, and that you have no mercy. But I know, for you have proved it to me, that you have the instincts and education of a gentleman. Whatever your crimes may have been it is impossible that you should do this! It is too abominable, unspeakable, unchivalrous!"
For a moment weakness overcame her, and she sobbed, bending down over her knees. Then, flinging off her tears, she seized his hand.
"If money will save him," she cried, "you shall have it! I swear to you that I will implore, I will compel, my father to give you any sum you may name. He will listen to me; he never refuses me. Only let him go. Leave him here in the wilderness if you will, and I will promise to remain your prisoner until the ransom is paid!"
There was such tremendous passion and eloquence in the girl's voice and words that my heart swelled ready to burst. Even the Indian seemed moved, and the white man brushed his rough cheeks with his hand.
I thought that Payton could not resist, but it was rather for her than for myself that I wished him to yield. He did seem to hesitate—perhaps he was calculating the chances that her father would listen to her appeal and weighing them against the chances that I, if released, would yet run him down before he could secure the money.
Suddenly he made up his mind. Stepping back from Helen and shaking off her hand, he said coldly to his men, "Go on with your work, and be quick about it."
She uttered a despairing cry and fell prone on the wet ground. At the same moment I was lifted and carried toward the black pit in the clammy slime.
Human nature is weak, even when we fancy ourselves wrought up to the most heroic endurance, and the horror of being buried alive in that dreadful swamp so far overcame me that, after a last glance at the beloved form on the ground, I begged Payton to shoot me.
Perhaps he had enough half stifled compassion in him to have intended to do that anyway, for instantly he raised his pistol, and instinctively I close my eyes.
Instead of the expected shot I heard a shout.
I opened my eyes and saw a long trailing rope uncoiling itself as it fell into the thicket, and immediately half a dozen men, the heels of one touching the hands of his predecessor, slid down the rope and landed almost at my feet.
Payton's pistol exploded, sending its bullet not into my brain, but into the body of one of the newcomers, who measured his length on the ground.
The shot was returned by two or three, but Payton darted into the brush, apparently untouched. The Indian and the other man disappeared at the same moment. In a few seconds three more men had slid down the rope, and the dark nose of the aero from which they had descended pushed into sight fifty feet above us. Then I heard a voice which I recognized as that of Peters of the Crow calling me. "Allan!" He shouted. "Where are you, Allan?"
"Here!" I responded, giving him a start, for he had been within ten feet of me without seeing me. "But in heaven's name, Peters, how did you get here?"
"We found the Skylark all cut up on the ground," he replied, "and, according to your orders, the Bobolink stayed by her while I set off in chase of you, following Grime's indications of your course. We must have been guided by Providence, for we came upon the stranded Osprey this afternoon and learned about your fight and your great leap. I took your gunner, Ethan Haight, aboard and he piloted us to a heap of rocks a few miles from here, where he thought you would be. We found a girl half out of her wits, who told us that her mistress and you had been run off into the bush by the pirate.
"Ethan insisted on following at once, inasmuch as the girl luckily knew the direction. We looked out for a light and, catching sight of a gleam here, made for it. I saw that there was something doing as soon as we got over the place, and I tumbled six men down a rope to examine into the affair. So there it is in a nutshell.
"But hang me if you're not all trussed up! What in the world were they about?"
"Cut my bonds, quick," I replied. "I'll tell you afterward."
He did as I requested, and, stiff with the confinement, I sprawled upon the ground and crawled as fast as I could to Helen's side.
"Why, what's this?" exclaimed Peters, following me. "Is this the woman we were after?"
I did not stop to answer him, but endeavored to lift the insensible form in my arms. But my strength was gone.
"For God's sake!" I muttered hoarsely. "Can't you see that she is in a dead faint? Bring some water or some brandy!"
Peters took out his flask, and I seized it and poured a mouthful of the liquor upon her lips. In a minute she half opened her eyes and groaned, "Oh, God, let me die!"
"Helen!" I said frantically. "Helen! It is I! We are saved!"
She had re-closed her eyes, but opened them instantly on hearing my voice. A cry of joy came from her lips.
"Oh, John, John!" she murmured, and, half rising, fell into my arms.
"Well, this does beat the Dutch!" I heard Peters say. "Why, Allan"—
"No more at present, Peters, I beg you," I interrupted. "You've saved us and you shall have the whole story in good time."
My strength was coming back, and I got to my feet, supporting Helen, and took the direction of affairs.
"The villain has escaped with two of his men," I said, "but we must find them, and especially him. Drop your aero down, leave three of your men here to look out for their wounded companion and take Miss Grayman and me aboard. We will go back to the rocks. There is no use of looking for Payton in the brush at night, but as his Chameleon is wrecked and he can only go afoot he can't get far away, and we will begin the search as soon as it is light enough to see. We will search the whole country with the eyes of a hawk, and he'll never get out of it alive."
WE found Susan on the rocks in an agony of terror and anxiety. When she saw her mistress she burst into tears. The three of us were half famished, but our wants was soon supplied from the stores of the Crow.
We waited until daylight to begin the search for Payton, and in the meantime, with the aid of our lights, I found and overhauled the Chameleon. The effect of our fire had been terrific, and I am more than ever wondered that she had not fallen in a heap from the clouds. All of her aeroplanes were more or less smashed up, and the deck had suffered, but the cabins were comparatively uninjured, Ethan having taken pains to save them as much as possible, knowing that the prisoners would be in that part of the aero.
Now I found the various colored "suits" of which I have spoken. They consisted of soft, fluffy material and were most ingeniously contrived to be drawn quickly over the aeroplanes. I may say here that they were the origin of the "downs" now universally employed on aeros to cover the gliding parts, it having been found that in this way an approximation to the feather covering of birds is obtained, thus increasing the buoyancy and directive facility of the machine.
This may have been Payton's original purpose, the "protective mimicry" idea being an outgrowth of it. In addition to the aeroplanes the other conspicuous parts of the aero were similarly suited.
"So that's the way the varmint played possum, is it?" said Ethan when he saw those suits. "Waal, she'll not turn grasshopper ner blue, white ner black butterfly ag'in, I'll allow."
Having selected from the stores of the Chameleon such things as would be of use to us and having found some of her bombs, I had her blown up, and we returned to the rocks. It was now 4 o'clock. The sun was getting over the horizon, and it was time to run down our quarry. I cared little about the two men. They might escape, and welcome, if only I could capture the pirate himself. I meant to keep after him a week or ten days, if necessary, and for that purpose I had taken possession of the unused batteries of the Chameleon, which sufficed to replace all that the Crow had exhausted up to this time.
The three men who had been left at the scene of the last night's adventure had arrived at the rocks, bringing along their wounded comrade, who was seriously shot through the breast.
They also brought Payton's pack of provisions, which had been left on the ground. This delighted me exceedingly, for it vastly increased the chances of his capture.
I had, including myself and Peters, ten available men. I decided to leave Peters and four men at the rocks, with plenty of provisions, and one of the electric guns, placing Helen in their charge until the arrival of the party from the Osprey or until my return. I directed Peters to keep a flag flying, for I felt confident that our friends would soon come, and probably with the aero, since my engineer had assured Peters that he could repair the steering gear.
For the search, my idea was to rise to a good height with the Crow and start off ostentatiously southward, in order that Payton, if he were watching, as he doubtless would be, might conclude that we were satisfied with the recovery of Miss Grayman and were making for home. When, to use an old nautical phrase, we should be "hull down" from the rocks I meant to put about, going round by the east to northeast and keeping full fifty miles beyond the point where Payton had escaped.
Then I would drop down near the ground and search it right and left over a breadth of at least 15 miles, creeping gradually inward toward the critical point. Since he was compelled to travel on foot I did not believe that Payton had been able to go anything like fifty miles over the brush-tangled and more or less swampy ground. But I wanted to be sure.
So off I started, after a tender departing from Helen, whom I encouraged with the hope of soon seeing her father and to whom I had related all the particulars of the manner in which we had found Payton's lodge and of our adventures up to the time of the battle in the clouds. She in turn gave me a vivid description of her experiences on the Chameleon, where she and Susan had been kept locked in the cabin most of the time. Once or twice they had witnessed the chase.
"But I did not know who my rescuer was to be," she said, smiling archly.
When we had attained a point between fifty and sixty miles northeast of the rocks we began the search in earnest. We had long been running low, but now I dropped within twenty yards of the ground and began to describe a series of endless interlocking spirals about fifteen miles in length, like so many flat, intertwined figure eights lying on their sides, one over another.
This enabled us to inspect the ground so minutely that a woodchuck could hardly have escaped being seen. Even where it was covered with brush we could usually see fairly well, and when we came upon thickets or clumps of stunted trees I ordered Ethan to drop shells into them—an employment that afforded him great satisfaction.
"This beats coon huntin' in Connecticut all holler," he said. "When I was a youngster we us'ter shoot up inter the trees whar the varmints was hid, but if we c'u'd 'a' got at 'em this way there wouldn't 'a' been a ringtail left in the hull state."
But as the time wore on and we got nearer where I expected Payton to be I stopped the firing lest the explosion of the shells should give the alarm. I now determined to resort to the device which had twice already proved so effective—that of looking out for a light after night came on. The nights were cold, and if Payton believed that we had gone off southward he would build fires, both for warmth and for cooking.
It was after midnight before our vigilance was rewarded. Ethan touched me on the arm as we stood together beside the gun in the bow and whispered, "Thar's the glim, lootenant."
Sure enough, not two hundred rods away, a faint gleam showed on the trunk of an unusually tall pine, surrounded with bushes. Instantly I brought the Crow to a hover.
"Shall I send him a shell?" asked Ethan eagerly, swinging the gun to an aim.
"Not yet," I whispered. "We'll creep a little nearer. I want to be sure. I shouldn't care to kill innocent men, although I suppose there is not one chance in a thousand of any trappers or hunters being hereabouts."
Moving with extreme caution just above the tops of the brushwood, we silently drew nearer. Presently the fire began to show in gleams through the mass of twigs and foliage, and quite suddenly we came in line with an opening through which the whole camp was visible as through a window. A birch log was burning brightly, and over it bent a man busy with cooking a piece of meat held on the point of the stick. The flames lent a ruddier tint to the dark countenance of Indian John.
A couple of yards back of the fire and so seated that his face was fully illuminated sat Alfonso Payton. The glare of the fire in his eyes would have prevented him from seeing us if he had looked up, but from our side we could make out his every feature.
Never in my life have I been so struck by a human countenance. It was a face in which beauty, manliness, dignity, intellectuality, impressiveness, self-mastery, courage, strength, seemed equally blended. There was nothing repulsive or wicked about it.
"My God, what liars men's faces can be!" I thought.
Ethan, who was less impressionable, begged me in a whisper to let him blow him to pieces with a shell.
"No!" I returned forcefully. "I forbid it absolutely!"
In the energy of my refusal my voice rose too high, and Payton heard the sound. Instantly he stood correct, and his eyes peered straight at the Crow. But the fire blinded him, and he did not see us.
"Crouch!" I whispered in Ethan's ear, "and lie still."
Payton stepped quickly round on our side of the fire. The Indian dropped his meat and also turned to look. Then both vanished.
"Skedaddled, by jingo!" exclaimed Ethan.
Which way had they gone? Probably directly ahead, because only in that direction would they have the continued shelter of the brush. This extended away in a comparatively narrow belt as far as we could see, and it was unusually thick and tall. I ordered the steersman to skim close above it at a speed a little exceeding that of a good runner. But when we had advanced nearly as far as I thought that the fugitives could have gone we stopped and hovered, carefully watching and listening. But there was no movement and no sound.
The brush, intermingled with a few stunted trees, extended, as I have said, in a belt which was not more than ten rods broad but apparently interminable towards the southwest. I made up my mind that it followed the course of a sluggish stream or a chain of swamps. On either side of it lay a stretch of bare country, and the moon, now rising, began to illuminate this sufficiently to have enabled us to see any object as large as a man moving across it.
I determined to "beat" this belt thoroughly, keeping so close to the top of the bushes that the fugitives would not dare attempt to dodge back beneath us.
It was slow, tedious, nerve racking work as we swept from side to side, but doggedly I kept at it, confident that the quarry would be driven on ahead.
I now longed for daylight, and at last it came. In a short time the sky became bright, and we could see the ground through the brush. Glancing ahead, I was delighted to perceive that within a short distance the belt ran out, ending in an open country. Suddenly a shot rang from the bushes a little in advance, and the rifleman at my side fell dead without a groan. Another shot followed, and I felt the sting in my right shoulder. A third flattened on the muzzle of Ethan's gun.
They were at bay and in ambush.
"Fire, Ethan—fire!" I shouted
His gun belched its blue flame, and the shell exploded in a clump of bushes directly ahead and so close to us that some of the fragments flew back and struck the aero. He had fired at the point from which he guessed that the shots had come, and evidently his judgment had been good, for we saw the bushes moving violently as if someone were running through them. In a minute we sailed directly over the spot where the shell had struck, and, looking down, I saw the Indian expiring on the ground. But Payton had again escaped.
"Speed ahead!" I called.
But now came a provoking accident. We had been sailing so close to the bushes that some of them have become entangled with our aeroplane, and the shock threw us all from our feet. We were detained perhaps fifteen minutes. Then we rose about twenty yards and forged ahead. I now saw the termination of the belt of brush, and, looking beyond it, beheld the fugitive, who had gotten upon a high rock and was awaiting us, rifle in hand.
Payton was making his last stand and doing it in his own manner. He made not the slightest attempt at concealment, but coolly brought his weapon to his shoulder as we approached. His hat had fallen off, and his dark hair was waving in the morning breeze.
His situation was not so desperate as it may seem. I could not call off either my steersman or my engineer from his work, and I myself could not on account of my wound handle my rifle. But Ethan was there with his gun, and that, after all, gave us an immense advantage, to say nothing of the mobility of the aero. But if he should shoot down the steersman we should be in a fix.
"Ethan, it depends upon you," I said.
The gunner took a quick sight and fired. The shell hit the rock and exploded with a fearful report. When the smoke cleared away Payton was gone. We cautiously approached the rock, but could see nothing of his body. Then we got down and searched, but in vain. I could not believe that he had got away, although the plain around the rock was covered with a tall wild grass intermingled with low creeping bushes.
"He must 'a' been blowed to thunder," said Ethan.
It may have been so, but we could find no trace of him. The top of the rock, where the shell had struck, was blackened and splintered, and any marks upon it would have been obliterated. We continued the search on all sides for an hour, but no vestige of Alfonso Payton did we discover, even with the most careful scrutiny.
Finally, convinced that he must be dead, although I could not explain his complete disappearance, we made sail for the rocks.
As we approached we saw the Osprey, and the flag was joyfully waved in welcome.
"Have you got Payton?" Was Mr. Grantham's first question as he rung my hand.
"No," I said. "I have not got him, but I believe he must be dead."
Then I described what had occurred, and I could not feel jealous as I noticed a sad, faraway look in Helen's eyes.
"Well, anyhow, you've won your reward," said the Secretary, with a mischievous look towards Helen. "You jumped into it." Then he added under his breath, "She has told her father!"
Mr. Grayman also shook hands with me very warmly, and I felt my heart swell with gratitude and love.
There is little more than I can tell you. Alfonso Payton was never heard of again.
His disappearance marked the end of one of the strangest chapters in the history of crime. Polished, talented, brave as a lion and such a master of aeronautics as the world has seldom seen, he could have risen to equal eminence, I like to think, had he chosen to work with society instead of against it. The record of his exploits some day will possibly find its way into print, as I have here set down its conclusion. No work of fiction will surpass it in wonder and fascination.
Helen and I often talk of him, and sometimes we have wondered if, after all, he escaped. On my part and I am sure on hers there would be no regret if we could believe that he did, for at any rate his career of crime was ended.
I should perhaps add a word to say that the survivors of the wrecked Skylark were safely brought home and to explain what became of Payton's lodge and what was the mystery of the digging in the woods. The lodge we set on fire—a vandal's act, perhaps—but we did not want it to remain as a possible lurking-place for Payton's crew. Mrs. Williams turned out to be a crook well known to the New York detectives, but as no overt act was proved against her she was allowed to go.
The "grave of the bear" was the last resting place of one of Payton's victims, possibly the "Mr. Green" that he had spoken of, but he was never identified. Other ghastly discoveries were made in the woods about the lodge, but no buried treasure was found. That I "had my reward" and that it was an ample one my happy life with Helen has abundantly demonstrated.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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