Choking and gasping for breath, feeling as if they could not stand the intense heat more than a moment longer, the young inventor and his companions looked at each other. Death seemed ready to reach out and grasp them. The mass of heated air was so powerful that it swung and tossed the Red Cloud about as if it were a wisp of paper.
"We must do something!" cried Mr. Damon, beginning to take off his collar and vest. "I'm choking!"
"Lie down in the bottom of the car," suggested Mr. Sharp. "The smoke won't trouble you so much there."
The eccentric man, too startled, now, to use any of his "blessing" expressions, did so.
"Can't you start the motor?" asked Tom frantically, as he stuck to his post, with his hand on the steering wheel, the elevation lever jammed back as far as it would go.
"I've done my best," answered the balloonist, gasping as he swallowed some smoke. "I'm afraid—afraid it's all up with us. We should have steered clear of this from the first. My, how it roars!"
The crackling and snapping of the flames below them, as they fed on the dry wood, which no rain had wet for weeks, was like the rush of some great cataract. Up swirled the dark smoke-clouds, growing hotter and hotter all the while as the craft came nearer and nearer to the center of the conflagration.
"We must rise higher!" cried Tom. "It's our only chance. Turn on the gas machine full power, and fill the container. That will carry us up!"
"Yes, it's our only hope," muttered Mr. Sharp. "We must go up, but the trouble is the gas doesn't generate so fast when there's too much heat. We're bound to have to stay over this fiery pit for some time yet."
"We're going up a little!" spoke Tom hopefully, as he glanced at a gauge near him. "We're fifteen hundred feet now, and we were only twelve a while ago."
"Good! Keep the elevation rudder as it is, and I'll see what I can do with the gas," advised the balloonist. "It's our only hope," and he hurried into the engine room, which, like the other parts of the cabin, was now murky with choking vapor and soot.
Suddenly the elevation gauge showed that they were falling. The airship was going down.
"What's the matter?" called Mr. Damon, from the cabin floor.
"I don't know," answered Tom, "unless the rudder has broken."
He peered through the haze. No, the big elevation rudder was still in place, but it seemed to have no effect on the shim.
"It's a down draught!" cried Mr. Sharp. "We're being sucked down. It won't last but a few seconds. I've been in 'em before."
He seemed to have guessed rightly, for, the next instant the airship was shooting upward again, and relief came to the aeronauts, though it was not much, for the heat was almost unbearable, and they had taken off nearly all their clothing.
"Lighten ship!" sung out Mr. Sharp. "Toss over all the things you think we can spare, Tom. Some of the cases of provisions—we can get more—if we need 'em. We must rise, and the gas isn't generating fast enough!"
There was no need for the young inventor at the steering wheel now, for the craft simply could not be guided. It was swirled about, now this way, now that, by the currents of heated air. At times it would rise a considerable distance, only to be pulled down again, and, just before Tom began to toss overboard some boxes of food, it seemed that the end had come, for the craft went down so low that the upward leaping tongues of flame almost reached the lower frame.
"I'll help you," gasped Mr. Damon, and while he and Tom tossed from the cabin windows some of their stores, Mr. Sharp was frantically endeavoring to make the gas generate faster.
It was slow work, but with the lightening of the ship their situation improved. Slowly, so slowly that it seemed an age, the elevation pointer went higher and higher on the dial.
"Sixteen hundred feet!" sung out Tom, pausing for a look at the gauge. "That's the best yet!"
The heat was felt less, now, and every minute was improving their situation. Slowly the hand moved. The gas was being made in larger quantities now that the heat was less. Ten minutes more of agony, and their danger was over. They were still above the burning area, but sufficiently high so that only stray wisps of smoke enveloped them.
"Whew! But that was the worst ever!" cried Tom, as he sank exhausted on a bench, and wiped his perspiring face. "We sure were in a bad way!"
"I should say so," agreed Mr. Sharp. "And if we don't get a breeze we may have to stay here for some time."
"Why, can't you get that motor to work yet?" asked Mr. Damon. "Bless my gaiters, but I'm all in, as the boys say."
"I'll have another try at the machine now," replied Mr. Sharp. "Probably it will work now, after we're out of danger without the aid of it."
His guess proved correct, for, in a few minutes, with the aid of Tom, the motor started, the propellers revolved, and the Red Cloud was sent swiftly out of the fire zone.
"Now we'd better take account of ourselves, our provisions, and the ship," said Mr. Sharp, when they had flown about twenty miles, and were much refreshed by the cooler atmosphere. "I don't believe the craft is damaged any, except some of the braces may be warped by the heat. As for the provisions, you threw over a lot; didn't you, Tom?"
"Well, I had to."
"Yes, I guess you did. Well, we'll make a landing."
"Do you think it will be safe?" asked Mr. Damon anxiously. "We might be fired upon again."
"Oh, there's no danger of that. But I'll take precautions. I don't want a big crowd around when we come down, so we'll pick out a secluded place and land just at dusk. Then in the morning we can look over the ship, and go to the nearest town to buy provisions. After that we can continue our journey, and we'll steer clear of forest fires after this."
"And people who shoot at us," added Mr. Damon.
"Yes. I wish I knew what that was done for," and once again came that puzzled look to the face of the balloonist.
The airship gently descended that evening in a large level field, a good landing being made. Just before the descent Tom took an observation and located, about two miles from the spot they selected for an "anchorage," a good-sized village.
"We can get provisions there," he announced.
"Yes, but we must not let it be known what they are for," said Mr. Sharp, "or we'll have the whole population out here. I think this will be a good plan: Tom, you and Mr. Damon go into town and buy the things we need. I'll stay here with the airship, and look it all over. You can arrange to have the stuff carted out here in the morning, and left at a point say about a quarter of a mile away. Then we can carry it to the ship. In that way no one will discover us, and we'll not be bothered with curiosity-seekers."
This was voted a good idea, and, when the landing had been made, and a hasty examination showed that the ship had suffered no great damage from the passage over the fire, the young inventor and Mr. Damon started off.
They soon found a good road, leading to town, and tramped along it in the early evening. The few persons they met paid little attention to them, save to bow in a friendly fashion, and, occasionally wish them good evening.
"I wonder where we are?" asked Tom, as they hurried along.
"In some southern town, to judge by the voices of the people, and the number of colored individuals we've met," answered Mr. Damon.
"Let's ask," suggested Tom.
"No, if you do they'll know we're strangers, and they may ask a lot of questions."
"Oh, I guess if it's a small place they'll know we're strangers soon enough," commented Tom. "But when we get to the village itself we can read the name on the store windows."
A few minutes later found them in the midst of a typical southern town. It was Berneau, North Carolina, according to the signs, they saw.
"Here's a restaurant," called Tom, as they passed a neat-appearing one. "Let's go inside and get some supper before we buy our supplies."
"Good!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Bless my flapjacks, but I am beginning to feel hungry."
The eating place was a good one, and Tom's predictions about their being taken for strangers was verified, for, no sooner had they given their orders than the pretty, white girl, who waited on the table remarked:
"Ah reckon yo' all are from th' no'th; aren't yo'?" She smiled, as she spoke, and Tom smiled back as he acknowledged it.
"Have you a paper—a newspaper I could look at?" he asked.
"Ah guess Ah can find one," went on the girl. "Ah reckon yo' all are from N' York. N' Yorkers are so desperant bent on readin' th' news." Her tones were almost like those of a colored person.
"Yes, we're from a part of New York," was Tom's reply.
When a newspaper was brought to him, after they had nearly finished their meal, the young inventor rapidly scanned the pages. Something on the front sheet, under a heading of big, black type caught his eye. He started as he read it.
Wanted for Robbery! Bank Robbers Escape in Red Airship-- Fired At But Disappear
"Great Jehosophat!" exclaimed Tom, in a low voice. "What on earth can this mean?"
"What?" inquired Mr. Damon. "Has anything happened?"
"Happened? I should say there had," was the answer. "Why, we're accused of having robbed the Shopton Bank of seventy-five thousand dollars the night before we left, and to have taken it away in the Red Cloud. There's a general alarm out for us! Why this is awful!"
"It's preposterous!" burst out Mr. Damon. "I'll have my lawyers sue this paper. Bless my stocks and bonds, I!"
"Hush! Not so loud," cautioned Tom, for the pretty waitress was watching them curiously. "Here, read this, and then we'll decide what to do. But one thing is certain, we must go back to Shopton at once to clear ourselves of this accusation."
"Ha!" murmured Mr. Damon, as he read the article rapidly. "Now I know why they fired at us. They hoped to bring us down, capture us, and get the five thousand dollars reward!"