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CHAPTER X


FUN WITH OLD RICKS


It was a moment of extreme peril. Sam brought the automobile to a stop. Had the roadway been wider he might have sheered to one side, but the highway was too narrow for that, and with a ditch on either side, to carry off rain water, he did not want to take a chance of going over.

"Go pack! Go pack!" shrieked Hans Mueller. He was crouching down, looking with staring eyes through the lowered wind shield of the touring car.

Suddenly Sam acted. While the biplane was still a hundred feet away he threw his lever into the reverse and allowed the gears to connect with the engine. Then the automobile began to move backwards, slowly at first and then faster and faster, as the youngest Rover put on the power.

"He's coming! He's coming! Ve peen busted up in a minit!" roared Hans, who was shaking as with the ague. "Oh, vy tidn't I sthay home ven I come to pay dis visit!"

The biplane had slowed down, for Tom had shut off the engine. But the Dartaway still had headway enough to catch up to the automobile and it came up like some bird of ill-omen, that made even stout-hearted Sam quail. But he stuck to his post, sending the automobile backward as fast as he dared. He knew the roadway behind was straight, so he simply steered by keeping the wheel as it was.

"Tom, Tom, can't you do something?" he yelled. "Turn her aside!"

"I'm trying!" yelled back his brother. "The steering outfit is jammed!"

Backward went the automobile and on and on came the big biplane, until the forward part of the machine was almost over the hood of the touring car.

"Maybe you had better jump out!" cried Sam to Hans.

But even as he spoke there came a sudden snap from the flying machine. A caught wire had released itself. At once the biplane could be steered again, and with a dexterous twist of the wheel and a deflection of one of the tips, Tom brought it around. Over a rail fence it sailed, to land gracefully in the open field beyond. Then Sam stopped the automobile.

"Well!" came from the youngest Rover. And that single word meant a good deal.

"Hope I didn't scare you to death," sang out Tom, as he climbed from his seat. "Hans, did you get heart failure?"

"Oh, Dom! Dom! vot for you do him?" asked the German youth, in a voice he tried in vain to steady. "I dink sure you vos going to cut off our heads off alretty!"

"It was the steering outfit did it," explained Tom. "I'm awfully sorry I scared you. I was scared myself. I was going to fly over you and then go back when all at once I found I couldn't budge the rudders. Then I got alarmed, thinking the machine might turn turtle on me, so I shut off the engine, intending to glide to earth. But I didn't want to glide right into the auto. Sam, it's a good thing you thought to run backwards. If you hadn't there would have been a smash-up sure!"

"So dot is der new flying machine," remarked Hans, as he walked into the field to inspect the Dartaway. "Mine gracious! she vos almost so pig like a house!"

"Want to go up, Hansy, old boy?" queried Tom.

"Not for a dousand tollers, Dom! No, not for a million!"

"You'll like it, Hans, when you get used to it."

"No, sir; nixy!" returned the German youth firmly. "I sthay py der ground on. You fellers can fly und I vatch you, yah!"

"How are you going to get the machine back?" asked Sam.

"Sail her back," answered his brother promptly. "But I'll have to look at that steering apparatus first—and you'll have to help me start."

"Better let Captain Colby inspect it first," advised Sam.

But Tom did not want to wait, and so he and his brother looked over the flying machine and soon found out what had gone wrong, and fixed it, so that the same accident might not occur again. Then Tom got in, and Sam and Hans started the propellers, and away sailed the youth in a manner that made the German lad stare in amazement.

"Dot's fine!" was Hans's comment. "Say, Dom, he peen a regular aviadventurer, hey?"

"What's that, Hans?"

"Dom, he peen a regular aviadventurer, or vot you call him?"

"Oh, you mean aviator."

"Yah, dot's him. He peen von sure!"

"Your word was O. K., Hans," was Sam's comment. "Tom is certainly an air adventurer!"

The two boys got into the automobile once more and were soon at the Rover homestead, where Hans was warmly greeted by the others, all but Captain Colby knowing him well. Tom had already arrived and the captain was inspecting the biplane with care.

"Such things will happen, especially with a new and stiff machine," said the old aviator. "All you can do is to watch out, and look over the machine with care every time you plan a flight."

Hans had much news of interest to tell about the boys who were still at Putnam Hall and about Captain Putnam and George Strong, the head teacher. He had also seen Mr. and Mrs. Laning, the parents of Nellie and Grace, and had heard something of the latest trouble with Tad Sobber and Josiah Crabtree.

"Vy ton't you got dem arrested?" he asked, when he was told that the evil-disposed pair were in that vicinity.

"We don't want the notoriety," said Dick. "If we had them locked up they'd be sure to drag Mrs. Stanhope and the girls into court. We are willing to let them alone if they will only let us alone."

Captain Colby remained at the farm a week and during that time gave the Rover bays as much instruction as possible in the art of flying in general and the art of managing the biplane in particular. He had brought with him several books on flying and recommended that these be read carefully.

"You all seem to take to it naturally," he said. "I don't believe you'll have any trouble excepting on rare occasions—and every person who goes up is bound to have that."

After the captain left the boys took several flights, some of them quite long. They sailed over Dexter's Corners and the railroad station of Oak Run, and at the latter place nearly scared old Ricks, the stationmaster, into a fit, by swooping down close to where he was standing. Dick also made a flight to the Marley place, and visited the Snubble homestead.

"What did you find out?" asked Sam, when he came back from the last-named trip.

"Sobber and Crabtree have left the old mill," answered Dick. "The Snubble boys were over there twice and they couldn't see a sign of anybody."

"Have they any idea where they went to?" asked Tom.

"No. They said Crabtree sold the mill property."

"Besser you look out for dem scalavags," was the advice from Hans. "I vouldn't drust dem mit mine eyes open alretty!"

"Oh, we're on the watch!" declared Tom.

The next day the German youth had to leave, and all the boys went down to the railroad station in the touring car to see him off. Old Ricks was there and he glared souring at the Rovers when he saw them.

"I guess he didn't like that flying affair," was Sam's comment.

"Oh, he's thinking of the time Tom put the cannon cracker in the bonfire and made him think some dynamite had gone off," returned Dick, with a grin.

"Or the time Tom gave him the cigar that turned into a snake!" went on Sam, with a laugh.

"Get out of the way! Get out of the way, you boys!" cried the old stationmaster, as he brushed past, hitting Tom in the knee with a suit case he was carrying. The train that carried Hans had rolled away, leaving Ricks and the Rovers alone on the little platform.

"Why, Mr. Ricks, what's your rush?" asked Tom, sweetly. "Going to a wedding?"

"No, I ain't going to no wedding!" grunted old Ricks. "I don't want you young fellers to git in my way, that's all."

"Maybe you have to testify in that case in court," went on Tom, with a wink at his brother.

"Ain't got to testify in no court."

"Why, you're in that case—I read all about it in the papers!" cried Tom.

"Me in a case in court?" asked old Ricks, suspiciously.

"Sure. It was a terrible trouble, wasn't it?" went on Tom. "I am mighty sorry for you, really I am, Mr. Ricks."

Now as it chanced, Mr. Ricks had had some trouble with a neighbor over a fence that had blown down between the two properties. The neighbor had threatened to sue him if he did not put the fence up again. The Rovers knew nothing about this, but it had been in old Ricks's mind for a week.

"If anybody sues me he'll git the wust of it!" growled the stationmaster savagely.

"It's a terrible mess, that's a fact," went on Tom. "The papers said he had threatened to get after you with a shotgun!"

"A shotgun? After me?" exclaimed old Ricks, and turned slightly pale.

"And they say you poisoned the cat," put in Dick.

"And caught the dog and starved the poor animal to death," added Sam.

"It ain't so—I never teched his cat, nor his dog nuther!" roared old Ricks. "He's a blamed fool, he is!"

"Hush! hush!" whispered Tom, solemnly. "Don't speak so harshly of the dead."

"Dead!" exclaimed the startled Ricks. "Who's dead?"

"Didn't you know he was found on the railroad tracks dead?" asked the fun-loving Rover. "Of course they say you let the freight train run over him. But we know you wouldn't be so wicked, Mr. Ricks."

"Dead? On the tracks? Me let the train run over him?" half-whispered the stationmaster. "I—I—didn't do it! Say, this is awful! Who told you this?"

"Haven't you read the newspapers?" asked Dick.

"That comes for being too stingy to buy a morning paper," added Sam.

"Of course the local papers didn't dare to print the truth," said Tom. "But you'll find a full account in the New York Blizzard and the Philadelphia Bazoo. Your picture on the front page, too, entitled, 'Did He Do It, or Did He Did It Not.'"

"Say, I ain't done nuthin', I tell ye!" almost shouted old Ricks, who was too excited to realize that the boys were making fun of him. "If them blamed city newspapers say I did I'll sue 'em fer damages, that's wot I'll do. I ain't teched Ham Ludd, nor his cat, nor his dog nuther! And it was the wind blew the fence down, I didn't tech that nuther!" He paused to catch his breath. "Where was Ham killed? I didn't hear of anybuddy gitting struck by a train."

"Oh, I don't know who the man was, or where he was struck," answered Tom, as he started to walk away. "But they are after you, Mr. Ricks. If I was you, I'd pack my valise and hike for California, or Sing Sing, or some other place."

"I ain't going to run away, Tom Rover, and you can't make me," was the wild reply. "I ain't teched Ham, nor his cat, nor his dog, nor the fence nuther, I tell ye! It's an outrage to say so! I'll sue them newspapers fer a million dollars damages!"

"I'd make it two millions," answered Tom, calmly, and then started for the automobile, followed by his brothers.

"But see here," went on the stationmaster. "I want to know——"

"Sorry, but we haven't time now," put in Dick. "Hurry, Tom!" he whispered.

"It's Ham Ludd coming!" added Sam. "Let's get out—before the fat's in the fire!"

And off the three Rover boys ran to the automobile and were soon rolling away from the railroad station. But they did not go far.

"I'm going back and watch the fun," said Tom, and leaped out, and ran up behind the station, while his brothers followed him.