“What’s that noise?” asked Gimp, seated with the other cowboys, most of whom were smoking.
“What noise?” asked the Parson, lazily flicking the ashes from his cigarette.
“Sounds like a lot of firecrackers going off.”
The cowboys, roused from their noon-day siesta, had risen from benches or from sprawling positions on the grass, and were gazing about.
“I don’t see anything,” observed Gimp.
“Nor I,” said the Parson. “But I hear it. It’s a sort of crackling.”
The noise grew louder.
“Sometimes,” said Hen Dalton, still softly, “quick rifle fire makes that noise. Once I was in——”
He stopped suddenly. The Parson had looked up and his surprised gesture made the others do likewise.
In the sky was an object. It was growing larger. It was from this object that the noise seemed to come.
“Boys! Boys!” ejaculated Gimp. “Do you s’pose—do you s’pose it’s one of them—one of them—airships?”
“Huh!” contemptuously remarked Hinkee Dee. “More like a couple of turkey buzzards having a family quarrel.”
They were all standing with craned necks looking up at the object in the sky, momentarily growing larger. Now it began to circle about instead of keeping in a straight line.
“Maybe it’s a balloon,” ventured an old cowboy. “I seen one at a fair once and it busted and the feller come down head fust and——”
“Balloons don’t carry sewing machines to make a noise like that!” contemptuously murmured Gimp.
“Then what is it?” came a general cry.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” was Gimp’s calm rejoinder. “She’s going to cash in right soon, I reckon.”
The object—the noise—came nearer. It was the airship of Ned, Bob and Jerry swooping down on Square Z ranch.
“It can’t be!” ejaculated the Parson.
“Huh!” was all that came from Hinkee Dee.
And then, with engine shut off, and on outstretched wings of varnished canvas, the airship volplaned down to earth.
As it came to a stop, under the application of[129] the brake, after rolling over the ground toward the semicircle of amazed cowboys, the three lads leaped out, snatching from their heads the leather and steel helmets.
“Well—I’m—I’m—lassoed!” gasped the foreman.
“Just what I thought!” chuckled Gimp.
“It’s them!” murmured the Parson.
“Huh!” was all that Hinkee Dee uttered.
“We didn’t find ’em,” announced Jerry, stepping forward, and his tone was as casual as though he had announced his lack of success in looking for some lost chickens.
“Find ’em? Find who?” the foreman asked sharply.
“The cattle thieves,” went on Jerry with a smile. “We had an idea that they might have gone up in a balloon, seeing they didn’t leave any tracks anywhere. But they’re not up in the clouds.”
“Do you boys—do you mean to say you’ve been up there?” and Dick Watson pointed toward the blue sky.
“Well, not exactly all the way up,” was the answer. “But we hit about five thousand feet, just for a practice spin.”
“Would anybody else like to try?” asked Ned.
“Not on your life!” cried Gimp, as Bob stepped forward, and the cowboy backed away.
“Look here! look here!” and the foreman seemed laboring under the stress of great excitement. “Do you—you gentlemen mean to say you really have been up in that thing? It isn’t one of these—er—slight-of-hand tricks, is it?”
“Hardly,” laughed Jerry, and he noted the difference in the tone of the foreman. “Here, we’ll show you how it’s done.”
In another minute the boys were back in their seats, and the airship, headed down a long, level stretch, was under way once more, the propellers flashing in the sun and the engine spitting fire.
Once more it arose in the air, like a great bird, and then, flying at a low elevation, so the cowboys could better observe them, Ned, Bob and Jerry circled about in the air over their heads. They did figure 8s, they looped the loop, going higher for this, of course, and then, shutting off the engine, they volplaned down, coming to rest in almost the same spot where they had first landed.
“Now do you believe?” asked Jerry as he and his chums advanced toward the marveling throng.
“By stirrups! We just can’t help it—that’s great!” cried the foreman, and the others murmured their assents.
“What do you think of ’em now?” asked Gimp of Hinkee Dee, as they went with the others to get a closer view of the airship.
“Huh! A bunch of stuck-up tenderfeet—that’s[131] all they are! They maybe learned that trick in a circus and pulled it off on us to make us feel how little we know.”
“You couldn’t do it,” said the Parson, grimly.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to. A cow pony is good enough for me, or I can walk when I have to.” And with that Hinkee Dee stalked away.
But the others did not conceal their admiration and amazement at the feat of the boys. They crowded about, asked all sorts of questions, and some of the cowboys patted the parts of the craft as though soothing a restive horse of a new species.
“Well, I see you arrived,” remarked Mr. Munson, who came up when the curiosity of the cowboys was about satisfied.
“Did you know they were up to this?” demanded the foreman.
“Well, I did see ’em tinkering with some contraption over in the woods,” admitted the cattle buyer as he called himself. “But I thought I’d let ’em surprise you.”
Professor Snodgrass, who had come back, his specimen boxes filled, saw the gleaming wings of the airship and called:
“Oh, boys, are you going to make another flight? I want to go up, for I have an idea there is a new species of high-flying butterfly in this region and I’d like to get a specimen.”
“We’ll take you up after we’ve had something to eat,” said Bob.
“Fine!” cried the professor. “I’ll get my long-handled net ready. Some of those butterflies are very shy in the upper air currents.”
“Do you mean to say you’re going up in that?” asked the Parson.
“Why not?” counter queried Professor Snodgrass. “I’ve done it before.”
There was a murmur of surprise, and it was easy to see that the professor had advanced greatly in the estimation of the cowboys.
The putting together of the airship, and its use by the boys made quite a diversion at Square Z ranch, where novelties were rare. The cowboys lost so much time from their routine work looking up at the clouds for a sight of the craft that Dick Watson finally requested the boys to make their flights at times when the employees were at liberty, or else keep from circulating over the cattle ranges.
Professor Snodgrass went up not once but several times, and made choice captures of upper air insects. Jerry and his chums tried to induce some of the cowboys to take a flight with them. But though Gimp almost allowed himself to be persuaded he finally backed out, amid the jeers of his fellows.
The boys were in high spirits for the airship[133] accomplished all they expected it would in the way of gaining them more consideration. The cowboys treated them as more than equals. They could not ask enough questions about the workings of the airship, and few of them would believe that it was not like a balloon, and that, somehow or other, compressed gas caused it to rise.
Jerry tried to illustrate by scaling a piece of tin in the air, the flat surface corresponding to the surface of the airship’s wings, and its motion sustaining it, just as the motion of the airship, imparted to it by the propeller kept the machine up. As soon as the forward motion ceased down came the tin, just as down came the aeroplane.
But the cowboys were all incredulous in general, though Gimp and the Parson had some idea of the theories involved.
As for Hinkee Dee, while he was plainly impressed, he did not become at all friendly. Instead of being sarcastic, he was just plain mean and insulting.
“Well, we’ll get him yet,” declared Jerry. “He can’t hold off forever.”
“I wonder what makes him this way?” asked Bob. “Is he afraid we’ll discover the cattle thieves?”
“Looks that way,” replied Ned. “I guess he wants to solve the mystery himself. But he’d better get busy.”
“He hasn’t done anything that I can see—except talk,” put in Jerry.
“No,” agreed Ned. “It’s queer. But we haven’t done much ourselves. I say! let’s get busy, now we’ve had our fun in the airship.”
“All right,” assented Jerry. “We’ll take a trip to-morrow over to the place where we ran up against a stone wall last time.”
“In the airship?” asked Bob.
“No. Not this time. The ponies will do.”
It was boots and saddles early the next morning, the boys taking their lunch with them.
“Good luck!” called the foreman after them. “If you don’t find the rustlers, at least you’ve kept ’em away since you came, except for that one raid.”
When he went out to the corral a little later and observed a pony there he exclaimed to Gimp:
“Who’s horse is Jerry riding?”
“His own, ain’t he?”
“There’s his pony now,” said the foreman. “Where’s Go Some?”
“By stirrup!” cried the cowboy. “Jerry’s taken the wrong pony. That imp Go Some will turn wild after he’s been ridden a few hours—he always does. And the fellow that’s on his back—well, I wouldn’t give much for his hide!” and he started off on a run.