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   Chapter 23 CAMP EAGLE IN THE MOUNTAINS

The Air Ship Boys : Or, the Quest of the Aztec Treasure By H. L. Sayler Characters: 13956

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It seemed too wonderful to be true. But words were proof enough that Ned Napier and Alan Hope had found a new use for dirigible balloons. Faithful Buck's death was more than the loss of a companion. In the short time the boys had known him he had shown that under his rough frontier bearing he was a brave and honest man.

"We can't go back now," explained Ned, "and we can't afford to land and wait for day. We can't all stay in the Cibola, and those of us who are landed must be left in a safe place. Our work," he continued turning to Bob, "is in the Tunit Chas Mountains, thirty miles west of here. It seems as if you had to know it. We'll go there to-night and land, if we can, on some isolated and inaccessible plateau. We'll make that our new relief camp and you and Elmer must take charge of it. To-morrow Alan and I will return in the Cibola to our abandoned wagon, bury Buck and bring away such of our stores as may be left. It's going to be a great loss, for I suppose the Indians have stolen everything. If the gasoline is gone it will cut short our work in the mountains."

"I don't think it will be lost," said Elmer, quietly. "We tried to save it. We rolled it into the river."

"But it will float away," exclaimed Alan.

"Unless de tins caught on in de drift in de bend jes' below," answered Elmer. "I seen four ob de eight tins dar befo' dark."

"That's what I call genius," exclaimed Ned. "Elmer, you're a brick! And now our course is due east at half speed. By daybreak we'll be over the Tunit Chas. Until then, the rest of you turn in. I'll run the ship."

Fifteen minutes later, despite the nerve-racking experiences of the momentous day, Alan, Bob and Elmer were wrapped in their blankets and sound asleep on the bridge deck of the Cibola.

The night passed slowly, but Captain Ned stood the long trick at the wheel, happy and content. To feel the Cibola, the product of his youthful genius, at last moving forward in obedience to his slightest touch drove all thought of fatigue and sleep from him.

But, above all, the early light of the coming day was to reveal to him a sight of the land of his hopes. There, before him, were the Tunit Chas; peaks and chasms of unsolved mystery wherein the centuries had held close their secret. Many trials had blocked his way. Was he now about to reap the reward of his labors? Did the hidden city of Cibola lie somewhere below him? Or were the Palace of the Pueblos and the Turquoise Temple but empty myths?

The young aeronaut's present plans were simple enough. The Cibola had now been afloat twelve hours and nearly half her gasoline was exhausted. More than once in the night Ned had noticed that the balloon was settling lower and he had been forced to maintain his level by casting over ballast. It was apparent that they were already losing gas.

In boyish impulse and sympathy they had made Bob Russell, the young reporter, a third and unexpected passenger, and accident had forced them to add Elmer Grissom, their colored friend and servant. And these extra occupants of the car must be landed at the earliest opportunity.

This became imperative now because, the relief and supply station on the Chusco river having been destroyed, the Cibola must add enough ballast and gasoline to make its exploring tour in the mountains in one journey. The original plan had been to make quick dashes to the camp on the Chusco for gasoline and then return to the mountains. To provide for this new weight the two new passengers and a good portion of the air ship's stores must be landed. And the most feasible plan seemed to be to set up a new emergency camp in the heart of the mountains.

Many things might happen to the now perfectly working balloon. And, even if cast away in the mountains, it was no part of Ned and Alan's plan to cease searching for the temple of treasure until dire necessity drove them from it. In case wreck and privation came it would be comforting to know that somewhere in the same wilderness food and friends awaited them.

The first glow of the sun painted for the ever watchful pilot a picture beyond the possibilities of brush and canvas. Here and there out of the blackness below sprang rosy points, the sun-tinted peaks of the Tunit Chas. Down the mountain sides, like rivers of silver pink, fell the sun's light. Then the valleys began to open out of the chasm of night-dark canyons wrought in the wilderness of the mountain sides. Here and there, oases left by the devastating hand of time, rose high plateaus, tree-crowned and verdant. And then, higher up among the white peaks, sentinel-like, stood giant tables whose brown tops and precipitous sides told of inaccessible and arid wastes. "And somewhere," said Ned to himself, "in this Titanic chaos lies the object of our search."

Starting at half speed, Ned had soon reduced the engine to quarter speed. When he aroused his sleeping companions Wilson's peak, their chief landmark, was just in sight far behind. His calculations placed the present location of the Cibola thirty miles from the Chusco river and just over the eastern Tunit Chas Mountains.

"All hands turn to," shouted Ned cheerily, "and stand by to make a landing."

There was a scramble, a rubbing of yet sleepy eyes and then an outburst of admiring wonder. The Cibola had sailed over two broken ridges enclosing an irregular, broken valley and was now looking down on a shelf-like plateau abutting on the second ridge and west of it. On three sides the plateau dropped precipitately into a lower rock-strewn, valley. On its eastern side it joined the still higher ridge. A pine forest crowned the top of the shelf-like mountain side and then ran up to the higher slopes until the carpet of green faded into the brown wastes of the timber line. In the very center of the wilderness of trees glistened a little lake of mountain water. From it the silver thread of a rivulet wormed its way for a mile or more among the trees and then trickled over the side of the cliff in a vapory waterfall.

Ned had swung the Cibola into a wide curve and the balloon and car were soon directly over the mountain creek. He threw the aeroplane guides downward and the slowly moving car drifted lower until it was but four hundred feet above the water and the overhanging pines. Then, following the water course beneath, the air ship floated back into the woods and the little lake widened out beneath them. Two deer, at the water's edge, stood unalarmed. On the south of the lake a grassy opening indicated Ned's destination.

"Here," he explained, "we can make a safe landing. It is an ideal place for a camp, with plenty of firewood and water."

"And meat, too," interrupted Alan, pointing to the deer.

"Venison and bear meat too, no doubt," laughed Ned.

From the top of a dead pine tree an eagle rose and soared lazily away.

"It's like the camping out places you read about," exclaimed Bob. "That eagle nest completes the pictur

e."

"It does," interrupted Ned, "and I hope you won't forget the picture. That high, barren tree is your landmark. Some day you may need it. Remember; from the valley below your camp can be found by locating the little waterfall on the cliff. From the timber line above you will know it when you see the eagle's nest. And now let go the anchor. We have no gas to spare, and can't afford to open the valve."

To make a landing in a balloon without throwing open a valve and wasting precious gas is almost impossible. The craft could only be kept near the ground by keeping it in motion or by causing the propeller fans to depress currents of air on the aeroplanes. Therefore, as soon as the engine stopped, the Cibola would mount higher. But resourceful Ned had long since thought out this problem.

The engine's speed was reduced and the anchor was quickly lowered until it caught hard and fast in a strong pine tree. The contact shook the fragile car and sent the bag bounding, but when it was seen that the iron had fixed itself firmly three of the boys, pulling on the anchor rope, gradually drew the great buoyant car down until it floated just above the tree top. To drag it lower was, impossible, for one sharp branch might injure the bag beyond repair.

When the ship was safely anchored just above the tree, the twenty-five foot landing ladder was lowered and Ned himself made his way down its fragile rungs into the tree. .

"Hold on tight," he continued, "I'm getting off."

As he did so and found footing in the tree branches the Cibola tugged to free itself, as if, overjoyed to be rid of Ned's one hundred and forty-five pounds of weight. As soon as the young commander was safely on the ground he ordered the other boys to pay out the anchor rope and again the Cibola rose in the air.

"Now," ordered Ned, "start your engine and head the car over the opening."

While Ned stood below directing, with hands to his mouth, trumpet-wise, the Cibola strained at her anchor rope and then, obeying her rudder, moved directly over the open space, her nose pointing skyward at an angle of forty-five degrees.

"Hold her," yelled Ned, "and haul back."

The boys again strained at the taut anchor rope until the car stood just clear of the trees and some two hundred feet in the air.

"Now lower your drag rope and an empty ballast bag," called Ned.

While this was being done the navigator of the Cibola was busy carrying chunks of broken rock from the margin of the little lake, and in a short time the boys above were hauling away on the rope and lifting aboard new ballast. With each bag of it the Cibola sank lower and lower, until finally, when it was almost balanced in the air, Ned easily drew the balloon to the ground.

But the landing was not yet finished. Not a passenger in the craft could step ashore until Ned had added more stone. But when enough of this had been lifted up to the hands above, and Elmer could alight, the two willing workers on the ground soon made it possible for the other boys to spring overboard. Then the four of them loaded enough more rock on the bridge to take the place of the stores to be landed.

There were not many things that could be left: water, and half the provisions and, preserved goods; a few cooking utensils; blankets, an extra compass, two revolvers, a hatchet and saw; a light silk tent; matches and candles, a medicine case, ammunition, and, to make way for the gasoline that it was hoped might be recovered, all the extra oil on board-for the reservoirs yet contained an ample supply to make the trip back to the scene of Elmer's attack.

At a safe distance from the balloon Elmer had returned to his favorite occupation. He got a fire going and while the other boys replaced the rocks on board with bags of sand from the margin of the lake the colored lad made hot coffee and broiled some bacon. It was a luxury after the cold, dry food of the long night.

"When you come back this evening," exclaimed Bob jovially, "I'll try to have a juicy venison steak."

"An' hot biscuits," chimed in Elmer.

"And a good bed of balsam boughs," added Bob, "and a fine camp fire, and we can sit wound it and talk it all over."

"And if we don't get back to-night you'd better have your camp fire anyway," said Ned.

"Ain't you goin' to git back to-night?" ruefully interrupted Elmer, as he poured the smoking coffee.

"You never know what you are going to do in a balloon," answered Ned. "If we can we will. If we can't we won't. If we are not back to-night we may not be here for several days. We've got work ahead now, and plenty of it."

"We'll be here when you come," replied Bob earnestly, with a smoking bit of bacon in his fingers, "whenever that is."

"No," replied Ned, "if we are not here in six days you must make your way out to civilization. You have food enough but you can't wait longer than that. As for directions, all I can say is that from this ridge back of us you can see across the half desert valley to the higher range of mountains. Should you cross the valley bearing almost due east and be able to get over or through that second ridge you will be able to see the top of Mount Wilson, thirty miles further east. From Mount Wilson it is fifteen miles southeast to the camp Elmer made. There you should pick up the trail of Buck's wagon back to the railroad eighty-five miles south."

Bob's eyes opened.

"Is it as bad as that?" he said half laughing. "We'll certainly have to get busy if the Cibola breaks down."

"Or," went on Ned, "any strewn in the valley below here flows finally into the San Juan River to the north. If you can make your way to this river and then succeed in following its banks eastward until you reach the plains, some time or other you'll find a frontier settlement."

"Or Utes," interrupted Alan.

"Gib me de mountain road," exclaimed Elmer quickly. "Nomo'Utesfo'me!"

"Yes," added Ned, "that's the trouble. The route to the San Juan is not only through a barren, broken mountain region, but it gets you finally right into the Southern Ute reservation. And, remember, too, that this is Navajo land. Your safety with them, should you be discovered, will be in diplomacy. And now good-bye-until we meet again."

"And if we don't," replied Bob, huskily, taking the hands of the two boys in turn, "I just want to say again that you boys have done for me what I can't forget and what I can't repay. I don't know why you are here, and I don't want to know. What I've seen will never be revealed, when I get back to Kansas City and the Comet, until you tell me I am free to tell it. And you'd know what that means to me if you knew what a cracking good yarn my experience has given me already. Good-bye and good luck!"

Ned and Alan clambered aboard; the rocks were cast overboard, and as the Cibola shot skyward the boys could hear Elmer calling:

"Member, boys-we all'll be at Camp Eagle an' supper will be awaitin'."

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