The airplane boys among.., p.21
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       The Airplane Boys among the Clouds, p.21

           John Luther Langworthy
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  It seemed to most of the thousands of lookers-on as though bothbiplanes left the green at the same instant. And as they speedilysoared upward it was impossible for any one among those left behind topositively decide whether either one of the rivals had the slightestlead.

  Of course a hurricane of shouts had broken loose the very second therecame a forward movement. It was as though the repressed enthusiasm ofthe vast throng had refused longer to remain bottled up, and just hadto find a vent.

  Still that volume of sound would prove but a shadow to the wildoutburst by which the ultimate victor might expect to be greeted whenhe came in later on.

  Frank saw that his rival was right there alongside when they had spedswiftly over what might be five miles; and it took very few minutes toaccomplish this part of the race, too.

  "He's holding us, Frank!" shouted Andy, nervously.

  "I know it; don't let that worry you!" was the composed reply hereceived.

  "But why don't you let go, and eat up ahead?" demanded the other again,presently, when he had kept watching the progress of the secondbiplane, and calculating the distance between them.

  Truth to tell Andy was so suspicious of Percy that he felt a constantdread lest the other might play some dastardly trick, meaning to thusgain an advantage. Of course no one could guess what the nature ofthis game might be; but he had the reputation of being a "slick one,"and among boys that signifies a fellow who never hesitates to applymean tactics rather than accept a square "beat."

  In that case the sooner they put on a spurt, and left their rivalbehind, the better Andy would like it.

  "I'm waiting to study his way of doing things first," Frank answered,as steadily as though they were seated in the shop, discussingarrangements. "Just hold your horses a bit, and we'll start something.I'm nearly ready to begin showing what our new engine can do."

  So the impatient Andy had to keep his eagerness in check, although hisvery heart seemed to be eating itself with suspense.

  Then he caught a quick breath. Frank moved his hand clutching thespeed lever. They had immediately commenced to increase their forwardmotion to a perceptible extent.

  Anxiously did Andy glue his eyes on the other aeroplane, and for abrief time he seemed to almost hold his breath as he watched to seewhether they would leave it behind, with Percy desperately endeavoringto copy their spurt.

  Looking thus he had seen Percy instantly imitate the action of theother, proving that he too had been keeping a little extra speed inreserve. And as the minutes passed Andy failed to discover theslightest difference in the relative positions of the two airships.

  "Frank, it didn't go!" he cried, with beads of perspiration on hisforehead; due, not to the heat of the afternoon, for they were makinglots of circulation in the stagnant air by their rapid progress; butbecause of intense emotion.

  "That's so, Andy," replied the pilot; "but perhaps a second time it maybe more successful!"

  "Oh! have you any more held back, then?" asked Andy, in a tremblingvoice, from which he could not however keep out the tone of joy.

  "A little. Wait till we are two-thirds of the way there, and thenwatch out!"

  They talked no more. It was difficult, to say the least, when going atsuch a frightful pace through the air. Andy divided his time watchingfirst the near-by aeroplane, which Percy was so skillfully guidingtoward the haven ahead; and then turning his attention towards thewestern sky.

  That low bank of clouds had commenced to move upward now. Yes, andwhen Andy looked, he could see the sudden wicked gleam of the zigzaglightning as it shot athwart the black masses.

  No doubt he experienced a certain amount of anxiety concerning thecoming of that summer storm. It would be only natural that he should;for if the aeroplanes were ever caught in the sweep of the furioustornado they would be as straws, to be toppled over and over to theground far below.

  But the fever of the race had full possession of Andy by now; and evengiven a chance to descend it is doubtful whether he would have availedhimself of it.

  Perhaps the storm would hold off long enough to allow them to completethe conditions of the event. And, anyway, so long as Percy chose totake the chances, it must not be for them to give up, and let him crowover them by finishing alone.

  Was Frank affected in the same way as his cousin? Perhaps, to someextent; but he would have welcomed a proposition from Percy looking tothe calling off of the contest to another and better day. If no suchbail came Frank might deem it his duty to keep on.

  Now they were approaching Hazenhurst; that is, they could easily seethe many houses of the town; and the commons near the center.

  "Another big crowd waiting there to see us turn the liberty pole,"ventured Andy, who had been using the glasses a brief time before,perhaps in the vague hope of being able to discover a certainfluttering handkerchief among the waving hundreds, that had a familiarface behind it.

  "I guess it's about time we took the lead, if we can," observed Frank.

  He had no sooner spoken these words than Andy felt the sudden change ofpace; for it seemed to him that the biplane actually jumped forward.When he heard loud shouts of rage and chagrin from the direction of theother aeroplane he did not need to be told that Percy had no furtherspeed to let loose; and that he recognized the fact of sure defeatstaring him in the face, unless fortune proved kind, and brought aboutsome accident to Frank's machine.

  If what Percy must be wishing in his heart just then could only berealized, no doubt the leading biplane would crumple up, and drop tothe ground like a crippled bird.

  But no such event came to pass. Frank continued to slowly but steadilygain on his competitor. He knew that undoubtedly Percy was trying, byevery means possible, to increase the power of his engine, alreadytaxed to the utmost limit.

  "How is it now?" asked Frank, as they began to gradually descend, so asto get within the proper distance from the earth at the time they madethe sweep around the liberty pole.

  "Still gaining a foot at a time!" shouted the exultant Andy; whothought things could hardly have been better for him, if they wereallowed to pass around that stake with their rival trailing in therear--for surely _she_ would see him there in the limelight, and he waseager to pick Miss Alice out of those many hundreds gathered to cheerthe plucky air navigators on their way.

  Now they could hear the hoarse shouts that arose. All Hazenhurst hadapparently gathered for this grand spectacle of man conquering the air.It was an inspiring sight; and while the younger element cheered madly,the older people gazed in sheer awe at seeing what, most of them had upto now, doubted could ever come to pass.

  Frank was keenly awake to everything. He did not mean to make anymistake at this critical moment. It was the part of wisdom to circlearound the liberty pole at quite a little distance. Likely enoughPercy would be more reckless, and cut in closer, hoping in that way tomake up a little of his lost ground. Very well, let him, if so be hechose to take chances.

  The Bird boys had the better machine, there could now be no doubt ofthat in Frank's mind. And as they had been able to gain while on theforward leg, the same conditions could be made to prevail when on thehomeward stretch.

  One thing alone troubled Frank. He realized that it was folly in themto think of carrying out the part of the conditions that called forthree circles around the peak of Old Thunder Top before heading for thehigh school campus on the last stage of the race.

  And after they were well on the way toward home, he meant to hail Percyto propose that they combine to cut that risky part of the performanceout. A joint agreement would settle it; and doubtless the judges wouldhail that decision as the part of prudence. Human lives were worthmore than empty honors; and while the gathered thousands might becheated out of a thrilling sight as they stood and looked towardfar-off Thunder Top, still few would complain.

  Would Percy agree?

  That was where Frank felt doubtful. He knew
the nature of the otheronly too well. Perhaps Percy would flaunt it in his face that he was acoward! Possibly he would declare that as for him, he meant to circlethe mountain top those three times no matter if the storm did catchhim; and having done his duty, would snatch the victory from hisweak-hearted rival.

  Now the liberty pole loomed up half a mile ahead. But the next clap ofthunder was certainly louder than any preceding one had been. Still,the storm would be behind them in heading for home, and hence theymight keep ahead of it, if only they did not dally in the neighborhoodof Old Thunder Top.

  Frank had settled down to the proper distance from the ground. Havingbeen here before he knew whether any obstacle would present itself inmaking that swoop around the tall mast. Not for a single instant musthe allow his eyes to leave the object of his flight. Andy couldobserve what was transpiring below but to the young pilot of thebiplane his only recollection would be a hazy one of a multitude ofupturned faces, a wilderness of fluttering handkerchiefs and flagstogether with hats thrown into the air; and the whole accompanied bystentorian cheers from thousands of throats.

  With scarcely any perceptible slackening of his fearful speed theleading aviator swept in a graceful curve around the big liberty pole;and having made the complete circuit, once more headed off towarddistant Bloomsbury, with the gathering storm grumbling and growling inthe rear.

  Andy was happy for the moment; and he thought he had good reason to be.In the first place, they had met Percy going in, while they were comingout; though Frank had wisely given his reckless rival plenty ofswinging room, not wishing to have a head-on collision. Then again,Andy had positively caught sight of that pretty rosy countenance thathe had seen pale with fear the other day, at the time he stood betweenMiss Alice and that savage bulldog.

  Yes, she was there, just where she had promised to be, with the mayoralongside; and how her dainty little handkerchief did wave to and fro,when the daring Bird boys were making their circuit of the liberty pole!

  Gradually the shouts of the enthusiastic Hazenhurst people grew fainterin the distance; for when going at the rate of a mile a minute it doesnot take long to lose even such a vast volume of sound.

  Frank determined to put the little plan he had in mind into practice.Better speak to Percy while the opportunity was still open. So heslowed down just a trifle.

  "Frank, they're gaining!" shrilled Andy, in new alarm.

  "I want them to," answered the other. "I cut off some of our speed onpurpose to let him come up where I can shout out to him."

  The second biplane was now close alongside. Andy could see the facesof those aboard, and noted the fact that they were flushed with the newhope that Frank had shot his bolt, and that his engine was now goingback on him.

  Waiting until the other was on about even terms Frank called out asloudly as he could.

  "Hello! Percy!"

  "Well, what d'ye want?" came back the surly answer.

  "Don't you think it's next door to foolish for us to head up to thepeak with that storm coming swooping after us? Suppose we makestraight for the campus, and call that a race? Another day we can fixit to make the try over again."

  Frank was very doubtful even while shouting this proposition; and justas he feared, Percy chose to look upon it as a sign of weakening.

  "You can do what you please," he called back, with a shrill laugh, "Iknow that I'm going around the top my three times. If you're afraid,back down, and make for the town. We'll see who's got the most nerveright now. Get that?"

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