With her nose headed north, the Red Cloud swung along through the air. Those on board were thinking of many things, but chief among them was the unjust accusation that had been made against them, by an irresponsible boy—the red-haired Andy Foger. They read the account in the paper again, seeking to learn from it new things at each perusal.
"It's just a lot of circumstantial evidence that's what it is," said Tom. "I admit it might look suspicious to anyone who didn't know us, but Andy Foger has certainly done the most mischief by his conclusions. Burglar tools! The idea!"
"I think I shall sue the bank for damages," declared Mr. Damon. "They have injured my reputation by making this accusation against me. Anyhow, I'll certainly never do any more business with them, and I'll withdraw my ten thousand dollars deposit, as soon as we get back."
"Mr. Sharp doesn't seem to be accused of doing anything at all," remarked Tom, reading the article for perhaps the tenth time.
"Oh, I guess I'm a sort of general all-around bad man, who helped you burglars to escape with the booty," answered the balloonist, with a laugh. "I expect to be arrested along with you two."
"But must we be arrested?" inquired Tom anxiously. "I don't like that idea at all. We haven't done anything."
"This is my plan," went on Mr. Sharp. "We'll get back to Shopton as quickly as we can. We'll arrive at night, so no one will see us, and, leaving the airship in some secluded spot, we'll go to the police and explain matters. We can easily prove that we had nothing to do with the robbery. Why we were all home the night it happened! Mr. Swift, Mr. Jackson and Mrs. Baggert can testify to that."
"Yes," agreed Mr. Damon. "I guess they can. Bless my bank book, but that seems a good plan. We'll follow it."
Proceeding on the plan which they had decided was the best one, the Red Cloud was sent high into the air. So high up was it that, at times it was above the clouds. Though this caused some little discomfort at first, especially to Mr. Damon, he soon became used to it, as did the others. And it had the advantage of concealing them from the persons below who might be on the lookout.
"For we don't want to be shot at again," explained Mr. Sharp. "It isn't altogether healthy, and not very safe. If we keep high up they can't see us; much less shoot at us. They'll take us for some big bird. Then, too, we can go faster."
"I suppose there will be another alarm sent out, from those negroes having sighted us," ventured Tom.
"Oh, yes, but those colored fellows were so excited they may describe us as having horns, hoofs and a tail, and their story may not be believed. I'm not worrying about them. My chief concern is to drive the Red Cloud for all she is worth. I want to explain some things back there in Shopton."
As if repenting of the way it had misbehaved over the forest fire, the airship was now swinging along at a rapid rate. Seated in the cabin the travelers would have really enjoyed the return trip had it not been for the accusation hanging over them. The weather was fine and clear, and as they skimmed along, now and then coming out from the clouds, they caught glimpses below them of the earth above which they were traveling. They had a general idea of their location, from knowing the town where the paper had given them such astounding news, and it was easy to calculate their rate of progress.
After running about a hundred miles or so, at high speed Mr. Sharp found it necessary to slow down the motor, as some of the new bearings were heating. Still this gave them no alarm, as they were making good time. They came to a stop that night, and calculated that by the next evening, or two at the latest, they would be back in Shopton. But they did not calculate on an accident.
One of the cylinders on the big motor cracked, as they started up next morning, and for some hours they had to hang in the air, suspended by the gas in the container, while Mr. Sharp and Tom took out the damaged part, and put in a spare one, the cylinders being cast separately. It was dusk when they finished, and too late to start up, so they remained about in the same place until the next day.
Morning dawned with a hot humidness, unusual at that time of the year, but partly accounted for by the fact that they were still within the influence of the southern climate. With a whizz the big propellers were set in motion, and, with Tom at the wheel, the ship being about three miles in the air, to which height it had risen after the repairs were made, the journey was recommenced.
"It's cooler up here than down below," remarked Tom, as he shifted the wheel and rudder a bit, in response to a gust of wind, that heeled the craft over.
"Yes, I think we're going to have a storm," remarked Mr. Sharp, eyeing the clouds with a professional air. "We may run ahead of it, or right into it. We'll go down a bit, toward night, when there's less danger of being shot."
So far, on their return trip, they had not been low enough, in the day time, to be in any danger from persons who hoped to earn the five thousand dollars reward.
The afternoon passed quickly, and it got dark early. There was a curious hum to the wind, and, hearing it, Mr. Sharp began to go about the ship, seeing that everything was fast and taut.
"We're going to have a blow," he remarked, "and a heavy one, too. We'll have to make everything snug, and be ready to go up or down, as the case calls for."
"Up or down?" inquired Mr. Damon.
"Yes. By rising we may escape the blow, or, by going below the strata of agitated air, we may escape it."
"How about rain?"
"Well, you can get above rain, but you can't get below it, with the law of gravitation working as it does at present. How's the gas generator, Tom?"
"Seems to be all right," replied the young inventor, who had relinquished the wheel to the balloonist.
They ate an early supper, and, hardly had the dishes been put away, when from the west, where there was a low-flying bank of clouds, there came a mutter of thunder. A little later there was a dull, red illumination amid the rolling masses of vapor.
"There's the storm, and she's heading right this way," commented Mr. Sharp.
"Can't you avoid it?" asked Mr. Damon, anxiously.
"I could, if I knew how high it was, but I guess we'll wait and see how it looks as we get closer."
The airship was flying on, and the storm, driven by a mighty wind, was rushing to meet it. Already there was a sighing, moaning sound in the wire and wooden braces of the Red Cloud.
Suddenly there came such a blast that it heeled the ship over on her side.
"Shift the equilibrium rudders!" shouted Mr. Sharp to Tom, turning the wheel and various levers over to the lad. "I'm going to get more speed out of the motor!"
Tom acted just in time, and, after bobbing about like a cork on the water, the ship was righted, and sent forging ahead, under the influence of the propellers worked at top speed. Nor was this any too much, for it needed all the power of the big engine to even partially overcome the force of the wind that was blowing right against the Red Cloud. Of course they might have turned and flown before it, but they wanted to go north, not south—they wanted to face their accusers.
Then, after the first fury of the blast had spent itself, there came a deluge of rain, following a dazzling glare of lightning and a bursting crash of thunder.
In spite of the gale buffeting her, the airship was making good progress. The skill of Tom and the balloonist was never shown to better advantage. All around them the storm raged, but through it the craft kept on her way. Nothing could be seen but pelting sheets of water and swirling mist, yet onward the ship was driven.
The thunder was deafening, and the lightning nearly blinded them, until the electrics were switched on, flooding the cabin with radiance. Inside the car they were snug and dry, though the pitching of the craft was like that of a big liner in the trough of the ocean waves.
"Will she weather it, do you think?" called Mr. Damon, in the ear of Mr. Sharp, shouting so as to be heard above the noise of the elements, and the hum of the motor.
The balloonist nodded.
"She's a good ship," he answered proudly.
Hardly had he spoken when there came a crash louder than any that had preceded, and the flash of rosy light that accompanied it seemed to set the whole heavens on fire. At the same time there was violent shock to the ship.
"We're hit! Struck by lightning!" yelled Tom.
"We're falling!" cried Mr. Damon an instant later.
Mr. Sharp looked at the elevation gauge. The hand was slowly swinging around. Down, down dropped the Red Cloud. She was being roughly treated by the storm.
"I'm afraid we're wrecked!" said the balloonist in a low voice, scarcely audible above the roar of the tempest. Following the great crash had come a comparatively light bombardment from the sky artillery.
"Use the gliding rudder, Tom," called Mr. Sharp, a moment later. "We may fall, but we'll land as easily as possible."
The wind, the rain, the lightning and thunder continued. Down, down sank the ship. Its fall was somewhat checked by the rudder Tom swung into place, and by setting the planes at a different angle. The motor had been stopped, and the propellers no longer revolved. In the confusion and darkness it was not safe to run ahead, with the danger of colliding with unseen objects on the earth.
They tried to peer from the windows, but could see nothing. A moment later, as they stared at each other with fear in their eyes, there came a shock. The ship trembled from end to end.
"We've landed!" cried Tom, as he yanked back on the levers. The airship came to a stop.
"Now to see where we are," said Mr. Sharp grimly, "and how badly we are wrecked."