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CHAPTER XVII


CAUGHT IN A HAILSTORM


All of the Rover boys realized their extreme peril, yet for the moment they were powerless to do anything to help themselves. Dick put out his hand to stop the engine of the biplane, then concluded that it might be more advantageous to keep the propellers moving.

Around and around spun the flying machine, tossed like a chip on an angry ocean. All grew dark about the three boys and each gave himself up for lost. It was useless to attempt to steer, so Dick held the craft as she was, so far as the wheel was concerned.

Then came a sudden, sickening drop and a tilt, ing to one side. Sam let out a wild yell, but what he said was drowned out in the roaring of the wind and the noise of the engine. Then, of a sudden, the Dartaway dove forward and the gust of air was left behind. They came into a "hole," as it is termed by aviators, and again they sank. But now Dick was gaining control once more and he tilted the front rudder and up they went for a hundred feet, but in something of a circle, because of the broken plane.

"Can't you land?" gasped Tom. "We can't—can't—stand—this!"

"I'll do what I can," replied Dick, between his set teeth. He knew that their very lives depended on how he handled the biplane.

Slowly and with great caution Dick allowed the Dartaway to get closer to the earth. Each of the boys strained his eyes, to catch sight of what might be below. Then came another gust, and this was followed by a strange rattling on the biplane. Small, white objects were bouncing in all directions.

"It's hail!" cried Sam. "We've struck a hail squall!"

He was right, and the hail continued to come down all around them, driven by a sweeping wind that carried the Dartaway hither and thitker. But it was one of those sudden squalls that do not last long, and soon they were sailing in the clear air again, and now within view of the ground below.

"There is a fine field—to the right," cried Tom.

Dick nodded and, not without an effort, brought the biplane around. Then he shut off the motor, and they slid to earth quicker than they had anticipated. The Dartaway struck the ground and bounced up and down several times on its rubber-tired wheels and then came to a standstill in the midst of some brushwood. Poor Sam was thrown out heels over head into the bushes.

"Are you hurt?" sang out Dick, anxiously. It was so dark he could not see what had become of his youngest brother.

"I—I guess not!" came back from Sam, and he started to scramble out of the bushes. "Say, that was some sail, wasn't it?" he continued.

"No more like that for me!" returned Tom, panting like a race horse. "Are you O. K., Dick?"

"Yes, although that bumping shook me up. But come, fasten the Dartaway down before the wind comes up again and blows it to kingdom come!"

This warning was necessary for the wind was still fitful and there was no telling how strong it might become. All sprang forward to do what they could to save the biplane from destruction.

"If there was a barn handy we might use that," said Sam.

They looked around, but the only building nearby was a small cottage, evidently one used by a farmer's hired hands.

"Run her around between the bushes," directed Dick. "They will protect her a little, for the bushes are quite high."

They found a spot between the undergrowth and into it forced the biplane, until the air craft was completely surrounded. The bushes broke the force of the wind and the lads had little difficulty in tying the machine fast with the ropes they always carried. It was hailing again, although not so heavily as before. The wind was gradually going down, but the sky was as dark and threatening as ever.

"I think it will turn into rain before very long," said Dick, after a look around. "Too bad it couldn't have held off half an hour longer. Then we'd have been safe at Brill."

"I'm thankful we got down safely, Dick," said Sam.

"Oh, so am I!"

"It was a narrow escape," was Tom's comment. "Great hambones! Who would have thought we'd run into such weather as this!"

"Oh, hailstorms like this are not uncommon, even in midsummer," answered Dick. "Don't you remember the one that came and cut down our corn some years ago?"

"Yes, and broke all the glass in the hothouse," added Sam. "Say, is the machine hurt much?" he went on.

"We'll have to make an examination."

They looked the biplane over as best they could in the semi-darkness. One of the bamboo poles had been split and two of the canvas stretches were slit from end to end.

"Not as bad as it might be," said Dick. "We can easily mend the canvas. But I guess we had better get a new pole in place of that one. I'd not care to trust it, even if it were wired."

"Perhaps we can wire it good enough to get back to Brill with," returned Tom. "We can't stay here."

"I've had enough sailing for to-day!" cried Sam. "Let us walk back, or get a carriage, and leave the biplane here until some fine day when there is no wind."

"Yes, we can't use her any more to-day," said Dick. "Let us cover the engine and walk to that cottage and find out just where we are, and how we can get to Brill."

Having arranged everything as well as the means at hand permitted, the three Rover boys left the vicinity of the brushwood and walked over to where the small cottage was located. The ground was covered with hailstones and Tom could not resist the temptation to gather up a handful and pelt his brothers.

"Stop it!" cried Sam, and then, as Tom would not stop, he rushed in with some of the hailstones in his hand and allowed them to slide down inside of Tom's collar.

"Wow!" roared the fun-loving Rover. "Let up, Sam! That feels as if I'd hit the North Pole!"

"Then you let up," answered Sam, firmly; and after that Tom let the hailstones alone.

As they neared the cottage they saw that a lantern was lit and set on a table in the centre of the living room. Around the table sat three persons, two young fellows and an older man, evidently a farmer. The three were smoking and playing cards, and on the table lay some bank-bills.

"Why, look at this!" cried Dick, in astonishment. Then he added quickly: "Get out of sight, don't show yourselves!" And he caught each of his brothers by the arm and led the pair to the rear of the building.

"What's up, Dick?" asked Sam. "Who were they?"

"Didn't you recognize those young fellows?"

"I did!" cried Tom, in a low voice. "They were Jerry Koswell and Bart Larkspur!"

"Koswell and Larkspur!" exclaimed Sam. "Are you sure?"

"Tom is right," replied Dick.

"Who was the third fellow?"

"I don't know. He looked like a farmer to me."

"Did you see the money on the table?" broke out Tom. "They must have been gambling!"

"It looked that way to me, Tom."

"If they were, all I've got to say, that third fellow better look out for Koswell and Larkspur," continued Tom. "They are sharpers at cards, so Dudd Flockley once told me. He said they got him to put up his money a number of times and each time they won. He was inclined to think they didn't play fairly."

"Well, knowing them as we do, I'd say they wouldn't be above cheating," said Sam. "But what in the world can they be doing in this out-of-the-way place?"

"That remains to be found out," replied his big brother. "Maybe they were on the road and ran here for shelter from the hailstorm."

"I'm not afraid of them, Dick," said Tom.

"Neither am I, Tom, you know that."

"Then what's the use of keeping out of sight? I'd rather go in there and give them a thrashing, like the one we gave them on that island."

"Don't forget we have the Dartaway here and they might take pleasure in ruining the craft or running off with her. Besides, I'd like to watch them a bit and find out a little about their plans. Remember, they want to play us some dirty trick."

"There they go!" burst out Sam, at that instant, and motioned to the front of the cottage. All looked in the direction he pointed out, to see Koswell and Larkspur hurrying down a lane that led to a road running between the trees.

"You come back here! That wasn't fair!" shouted the farm hand who had been playing cards with them. "Come back!" And he rushed to the front door of the cottage and waved his arm wildly.

"It was fair!" shouted back Jerry Koswell.

"Sure it was fair!" added Bart Larkspur. "We'd come back, only we are in a hurry."

"You cheated me!" stormed the farm hand and shook his fist at the pair. But they paid no further attention, and soon the darkness and a bend of the road hid them from view.

The Rover boys waited a few seconds and then knocked on the back door of the cottage. The farm hand, a fellow named Dan Murdock, stamped over to the door and threw it open.

"What do you want?" he asked surlily. The loss of his money had made him ill-tempered.

"Why, hello, Murdock!" cried Sam. "I didn't know you lived here."

"Oh, so it's you, Rover," answered the farm hand. He remembered that he had once given Sam a ride and had been well paid for it. "Caught in the hailstorm?" he went on, a bit more pleasantly.

"Yes. These are my brothers," added Sam. "We were out and we got lost. Can you tell us the best road to the college?"

"Of course. Walk through the woods back there. Then take the road to the left and at the cross roads turn to the right. You'll see the signs, so you can't go wrong."

"And how far is it?"

"About two miles. You can take the road yonder, too, but that's about a mile longer."

"Do you live here?" asked Dick, curiously.

"I sleep here me and two other hands. We get our meals up to Mr. Dawson's house—the man we work for."

"Oh, then this is the Dawson farm?" Dick remembered that Mr. Dawson supplied butter and eggs to the college.

"Yes, sir."

"I'm glad to know that, for we need some help. We were out in our flying machine and had to come down over there. We'll want somebody to look after the machine until we can fix it up and take it away. Of course we'll pay for what's done," he added.

"Oh, I heard tell of that flying machine!" exclaimed the farm hand. "You sailed over this farm a couple of hours ago."

He was much interested and wanted to know all about the trip, and about the machine. He said Mr. Dawson was away, but that the Dartaway could be wheeled up into one of the big barns and left there until repaired. Then he agreed to get out a two-seated carriage and drive the boys over to Brill. Inside of half an hour the biplane was safely housed, and the whole party was on the way to the college.

Dick had warned Sam and Tom to remain silent concerning Koswell and Larkspur, and it was not until they were almost to Brill that he mentioned the fact that they had seen the pair running away from the cottage.

"Seen 'em, did you?" cried Dan Murdock. "Say, them fellers are swindlers, they are! They came in to git out of the hail and then they started to play cards, just to while away the time, so they said. They asked me to play, and as I couldn't work just then, I consented, and then they got me to put up some money,—just to make, it interestin', they said. They let me win a little at first, and then they got me to put up more and more, and then they cheated me and wiped me out!"

"And how much did they get from you?" asked Dick.

"Thy got nearly all my savings—eighty dollars!" answered Dan Murdock, grimly.