CHAPTER I A CRY IN THE AIR
"Well, Bob, here we are again. And no word from Jack yet."
"That's right, Frank. But the weather has been bad for sending so great a distance for days. When these spring storms come to an end the static will lift and well stand a better chance to hear from him."
"Righto, Bob. Then, too, the Hamptons may not have finished their station on time."
The other shook his head. "No, Jack wrote us they would have everything installed by the 15th and that we should be on the lookout for his voice. And when he says he'll do a thing, he generally does it. It must be the weather. Let's step out again and have a look."
Taking off their headpieces, the two boys opened the door of the private radiophone station where the above conversation took place and stepped out to a little platform. It was a mild day late in June, and the sandy Long Island plain, broken only by a few trees, with the ocean in the distance, lay smiling before them. A succession of electrical storms which for days had swept the countryside in rapid succession apparently had come to an end. The clouds were lifting, and there was more than a promise of early sunlight to brighten the Saturday holiday.
The boys looked hopefully at each other.
"Looks better than it has for days, Frank."
A few moments more they chatted hopefully about the prospects, then re-entered the station.
Frank Merrick and Bob Temple were chums, a little under 18 years of age each. It was their bitterest regret that they had been too young to take any part in the World War some years before. Frank was dark, curly-haired, of medium height and slim, but strong and wiry. Bob was fair and sleepy-eyed, a fraction under six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. A third chum and the leader of the trio was Jack Hampton, 19 years of age. He had gone to New Mexico several months before with his father, a mining engineer.
All three boys were sons of wealthy parents, with country estates near the far end of Long Island. Frank's parents, in fact, were dead, and he lived with the Temples. Mr. Temple was his guardian and administrator of the large fortune left by his father, who had been Mr. Temple's partner in an exporting firm with headquarters in New York City. Jack Hampton also was motherless.
The boys were keenly interested in scientific inventions, and were given every facility by Mr. Temple and Mr. Hampton for indulging their hobbies. Such indulgence required considerable sums of money, but the men believed the boys were worth it. In fact, both gentlemen were scientifically inclined themselves, and were able to give the boys much valuable advice.
When Mr. Hampton decided to go to Texas and New Mexico as the representative of a group of "independent" oil operators engaged in a bitter war with the Oil Trust known as the "Octopus," Jack begged so hard to be permitted to go along that his father let him quit Harrington Hall Military Academy two months before the end of the term.
It was agreed that when school ended, June 28, Frank and Bob should join Jack in the Southwest for their summer vacation. The two boys owned an airplane in which they hoped to make the trip when the time came. Mr. Temple, however, was dubious about letting them attempt to make so long a flight alone.
"But, Dad," Bob would argue, whenever the matter was discussed, "we'll be all right. We've made lots of flights without any accidents. We're as capable as anybody. You know yourself what the instructors up at Mineola told you. You say we are too young to fly away alone. But look at the young fellows that got to be 'aces' in the War! Not much older than we are now."
It must be confessed that Mrs. Temple thought little of the matter one way or the other. She had so many social duties to take up her time that there was little left for the boys. Accordingly, the boys had only Mr. Temple to persuade and they felt pretty certain of doing that in time. So the last two months of school were spent in poring over maps and routes, and in studying up on landing fields and flying conditions generally throughout the territory they would have to cover.
Much of this study for the proposed flight was carried on at the radiophone station on the Hampton estate. Mr. Hampton was an enthusiast about the development of radio telephony and it was through him the boys first had become interested in the subject. A year earlier he had built a powerful station for the purpose of making experiments in talking across the ocean. On that account the United States Government had granted him a special permit to use an 1,800 metre wave length.
Before leaving for the Southwest, Jack told the boys his father intended to build in Texas or New Mexico another radiophone station of similar wave length. This would enable Mr. Hampton to communicate with his New York confreres through his Long Island station. The big thing to the boys, however, was that they would be able to talk to each other across 2,000 miles of territory. Delays in construction in the Southwest had occurred, however, and communication between the two stations had not yet been established when our story opens.
As the boys re-entered the station after their inspection of the weather, Bob threw himself sprawlingly into a deep wicker chair and, picking up a book, began idly to turn the pages. Frank went to the table where the control apparatus was located and put on a headpiece. For a few moments there was silence, which Frank presently shattered with a loud cry of: "Bob. Bob. Come here."
Bob dropped his book and, leaping to his feet, strode to his chum's side.
"What is it?"
"Put on a headpiece, Bob," said Frank in a voice of great excitement. "I believe Jack is trying to get us."
Excited as his chum, Bob clamped a receiver on his head, while Frank manipulated the "amplifier" and "detector" knobs on the control apparatus.
A variety of sounds greeted the boys at first, whistles, calls, and chattering coming to their ears. Then as their tuner searched out the higher regions of the air, they shut out the sounds of the low-range air traffic. There was a thin, shrieking sound. Then, that also disappeared. And then quite suddenly the listening, expectant boys heard Jack's voice speaking to them just as plainly as if he stood in the room.And then quite suddenly the listening expectant boys heard Jack's voice speaking to them just as plainly as if he stood in the room.
"Frank. Bob. Bob. Frank," Jack was saying. "Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"
"Hurray, Jack, sure we can hear you," cried Frank, bending forward to speak into the transmitter on the stand before him.
Then as Jack's voice continued calling without paying him any attention, he straightened up and laughed.
"Gee. I forgot," he laughed. Laying down his headpiece, he ran across the room; opened a door into the power house adjoining where the mechanic was dozing over his pipe and called to him to throw on the generator.
Galloping back, as the man obeyed, Frank again snatched up his headpiece. Bob already was bending over a transmitter, calling to Jack in faraway New Mexico. Both boys listened with straining ears for the response. Presently Jack answered: "I can hear you, but only very faintly. Put that band piece on the talking machine. You know the one I like so much. I can't think of its name. I'll tune to it."
Frank hastily shuffled through a pile of talking machine records. Finding the one he sought, he put it on the machine which stood directly in front of a big condensing horn strapped to the back of a chair to give it the proper height. A moment or two later, Jack's voice in the receivers declared:
"All right. Shut her off now. I'm fixed fine."
"Say, Jack, think of talking 2,000 miles like this," said Bob.
"Oh, we've been working some days out here," answered Jack. "But we couldn't get you."
"No," cut in Frank. "The static interfered, I guess. But it lifted today."
"How are things going, Jack?" Bob inquired next.
Jack's voice became excited. "Going?" he answered. "Fellows, I never knew what excitement was until this last week."
"What do you mean?" demanded both boys together.
"Oh, I couldn't tell you now," laughed Jack. "It would take all day and then some to tell you all that's happening around here. But, let me tell you, between Dad's business opponents and a gang of Mexican bandits that appeared on the scene lately, things are getting pretty lively. Say, when are you coming? Now's the time if ever——"
Suddenly, Jack's voice ceased abruptly, to be succeeded a moment later by his agonized cry for "Help." Then there was a crash that rang in the eardrums of the alarmed boys listening in. Then, silence.
"Jack. Jack," they called. "What's the matter?"
There was no answer.
CHAPTER II THE ENEMY NEAR
Frank Merrick and Bob Hampton looked at each other in alarm. Their faces were pale.
That cry for "Help" which abruptly had cut off Jack's voice as he spoke to them from his radiophone station 2,000 miles away in New Mexico still rang in their ears. Their heads still hummed from the vibrating crash which had succeeded. What did it all mean?
Frank snatched the receiver from his head, while Bob removed his more slowly. Frank voiced the question in each mind as he said in a tone of apprehension:
"What do you think happened to Jack?"
"You know as much as I do," answered his chum.
"Well, do you know what I think?" asked Frank with energy. "I think those Mexican bandits he spoke about sneaked up on him."
"Well, if they did, they caught a Tartar," said Bob, with conviction, remembering Jack's athletic prowess. All three boys were athletic, good swimmers, boxers and wrestlers, as well as skillful fencers. Jack, however, was unquestionably the superior of the others, except that Bob was the best wrestler.
Frank shook his head dubiously. "I don't know," he said. "If there was a bunch of them and if they sneaked up from behind while he was talking."
"Just the same," said Bob, "old Jack would put up some battle. I'll bet you the furniture got mussed up all right, all right. That's the reason for that crash. Probably the microphone was torn from the cords. They may even have wrecked the station. Boy, oh boy, don't I wish I'd been there." And Bob doubled up his fists and pranced around, making deadly swings at imaginary foes.
"Calm down, Bob," said Frank, dropping into a chair and running a hand through his hair as he was in the habit of doing when perplexed. "We don't know that it happened the way we figure. We don't know what happened. Maybe Jack was badly hurt, maybe he was killed. Or he may be a prisoner of the bandits.
"Oh," he cried, leaping to his feet and beginning to walk up and down the room distractedly, "isn't there something we can do? This is maddening."
"Calm down yourself, Frank," said Bob, always the cooler of the two in a crisis. "If we can't do any better, at least we can wire to Jack's father and find out in a few hours what happened."
At this moment the door was pushed open. A tall man of distinguished appearance, still in the prime of life, and bearing a close resemblance to Bob, entered the room. He glanced inquiringly at the boys.
"Something gone wrong?" he asked. "What's the trouble?"
"Hello, Uncle George."
It was Mr. Temple, Bob's father and Frank's guardian, and there was relief in the boys' voices as they greeted him. He always was so capable in an emergency.
"Motored home at noon today," he said. "Guess I've got spring fever. Anyhow, I couldn't stand it in the city. Della told me you were over here and that you thought, perhaps, you would hear from the Hamptons today." Della was Bob's younger sister, and the Temples' only other child.
"We heard all right, Dad," said Bob gravely. Thereupon he proceeded to relate what had occurred....