THE “MYSTERY CRATE”

“Father ordered us to drop this part of things,” said Al finally, “but
I’m glad we disobeyed if it helps Griff to get out of trouble.”

“So am I,” admitted Bob. “But that isn’t what we were quiet for, to talk
about what we’ve done.”

“We want to know what to do!” Curt commented.

“That’s what I was coming to,” defended Al. “Let Griff stay here with
you, Bob, while Curt and I ride out to The Windsock. We can call up as
soon as we arrive, and then wait outside, hiding. Then Griff can take
this money and come out, and pay it, and then we will jump in from
outside the door and grab it and jump through the window and——”

“Is that the best you can do?” scoffed Curt. Al grinned.

“It looked good till I said it,” he admitted, “then——”

“That’s you, all the way!” his brother challenged. “Quick on the trigger
and sorry when the bullet hits the wrong target.”

“I have a plan, though,” suggested Curt. “Al and I can go out to The
Windsock, as Al said, to get a good place under that office window.
Then, when Griff pays the money, we will be witnesses, and if the man
tries not to give a receipt we’ll be on Griff’s side.”

“Better, but not perfect,” said Bob.

“I suppose the head Sleuth of the Sky Squad has the one perfect plan!”
Al was sarcastic.

“No,” Bob was honest, “I haven’t! I thought of having Griff call the man
and say he’d be there bright and early with the money——”

“I did tell him that, when Lang left. He said it would be tonight,
whether he got it from me or from my father.”

“Um-m-m!” Curt was thoughtful. “Bad! Well——”

“If we could keep that Jenks man so busy, keep his mind so much occupied
he’d be too excited to think about Griff—” Al was not very sure of
himself.

“We could!” Curt astonished Al by accepting the idea. “Look here! If he
isn’t the ex-pilot, maybe the ex-pilot wrote that other autograph.
Whether he did not or did, anyhow the Jenks man had something to
conceal, or he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of giving Al two
specimens of writing to get mixed up with. Now—if we were out there, and
Griff tried once more to stave off payment till morning, if he agreed,
all right, we could come home and this money in the safe would be all
right.”

“Logical so far,” agreed Bob.

“All right. If the man refused to wait, we could telephone in to Griff
to find out, and if Jenks refused to wait, we’d walk in on that Jenks
fellow and say we knew he was mixed up in something wrong about the
airplane crash, and throw out hints, and so on. I think, myself, he is
in it somehow. He’d bluster, maybe, but if he has anything to conceal,
we could scare him, and then tell him to let Griff alone for the present
or tell his story to a policeman—and we might hint that he could explain
a lot about the crash——”

“I like it as well as anything you’ve suggested,” said Griff. “If you
could ‘get way with it.’”

“Trust us to scare him good and proper!” declared Al. “I’d ask him ‘how
about the brown ‘plane’——”

“No good,” argued Bob. “We looked that craft up in the official registry
and she’s from out West, and while we know her markings we haven’t found
her and I don’t believe he——”

“I do,” Al defended his deduction. “I think he had it brought here for
him to use, and then taken away again, and that accounts for his
note—‘Everything O.K.’ when the pilot left it there and he put the note
on the seat to show he had been there!”

“Then maybe this Jenks hopped off, in the morning, met the ‘plane Mr.
Tredway was flying, forced it into trouble, rode it down——”

“But we saw the big cabin ship!” objected Bob to Curt’s theory. “There
was no other ship around.”

“You can’t be sure!” argued Al. “That brown crate might have been up
above, against the dark clouds in the sky! You couldn’t tell if we heard
one or two engines. He could have surprised Mr. Tredway, could have
driven him into a dive—something may have gone wrong——”

“But Barney examined the craft when it was hauled in,” urged Bob.
“Nothing was wrong with it at all!”

“Well,” Al was obstinate, “I think what I think!”

“Who owns the brown ‘plane?” asked Griff. “Did you look that up?”

“Yes, we did! No name we know. No one mixed up in the case. It was
probably hired by wire, or telephone, from somebody we don’t know.”

“It isn’t important, anyhow,” Curt declared. “Not right now. What do you
think of my idea, Griff?”

“I’m for anything that will tide me over till Lang gets back.”

“Then—let’s do it!” Al jumped away from the group and was already at the
door. Bob hesitated a moment, then, seeing how eager Curt was to echo
Al’s enthusiasm, he agreed.

After the two started for The Windsock, Bob sat with Griff, giving him
the facts they knew, the theories they had formed for awhile.

“It’s tangled up, and no mistake,” Griff, recovered somewhat, but no
longer fidgety, feeling that aid was being given him in his trouble,
rose. “Look here, Bob—I was so excited, I didn’t eat any dinner. What
say you stay here in case a call comes in, while I run out and get some
coffee and sinkers?”

“Lock the desk first! I don’t want to be caught here with it open.”

“Right! I shan’t need the slip that has the combination on it, any
more.” He put a paper in a small drawer, closed down the roll top,
adjusted his cap at a more confident, rakish angle, and sauntered out,
while Bob made himself comfortable at the desk in the swivel chair.

The minutes dragged along.

In the deserted office building there was almost no sound—a rat crept
toward a wastebasket, ran back as Bob moved in his chair; but otherwise
the place was very still.

“There’s an airplane engine!” Bob mused, as, in the silence, he caught
the faint, steady drone coming from the sky.

It grew louder—rapidly, much louder!

“It can’t be Lang, coming back!”

Bob went to the window. The sound seemed to come from the other side of
the building. He ran across the hall into the directors’ room and got to
the window, which had a fire escape stairway outside it.

Just as he peered through the bars of the fire escape, he saw a craft
swoop down, quite low. It did not land! Instead, it seemed to zoom along
and to rise swiftly.

“Overshot the field,” Bob mused. “Why doesn’t he drop a Verey light to
signal the watchman to turn on the landing floods? Or—maybe the watchman
isn’t out there. I’d better see.”

He ran down the stairs and out into the yard, across it and onto the
small landing field. The craft had passed, but he could still hear the
engine. It seemed from its change of location, that the craft was coming
around in a spiral.

Bob ran toward the switch controlling the flood lights. One of the
large, hooded lamps was near it. As the sound of the engine came closer
he switched on the floods.

To his surprise the sudden light seemed to startle the pilot—at least
the craft seemed to waver, to skid, to drop, and then, to catch its
flying speed and control. But it did not spiral as he expected a pilot
who had waited for light would do.

Instead it began to climb.

Swiftly, eagerly curious, Bob caught hold of the handle on the adjusting
mechanism of the flood light. It could be lifted, or set lower, to
govern the range and height of its beam.

Bob proposed to use it as a searchlight, to illuminate the craft if he
could swing the heavy lamp upward in time.

Eagerly he labored with the mechanism.

Slowly the beam lifted.

Its intense rays caught the craft’s underwings.

“What’s going on here?” The watchman ran up.

For answer Bob pointed excitedly toward a brown, sharply outlined craft,
climbing, growing dim in the fainter beam as it receded.

“It’s—it’s—” he gasped, “—it’s the mystery crate—the brown airplane!”