[Chapter XIII (“A Contest with Alphonse”) of The Motor Chums at Large, or, In Washington F.D. for Fun and Profit, originally written 11 April 1973]
reat excitement attended the election airmeet in Washington F.D. So also did aviators from every part of the American Empire. Airships of all sorts were to be seen—clumsy Prussian Flugmachinen, light Gallic Avions, huge dirigibles and small monoplanes, as well as a good many of novel and original designs.
People of many classes had come, some to take part, and some to merely observe, but all shared a common enthusiasm for the new invention.
In one corner of the grounds a crowd had gathered thickly, so as to watch a race, by no means the first such event of the day. Four aeroplanes of different design were entered, and many of those watching were eager to learn from their performance. Unfortunately a delay in starting was in evidence.
“I guess you’ll just have to forfeit the race,” grinned Clarence Ashton evilly.
“I will not,” retorted the other, “Just because my pilot took it upon himself to get sick. My multiplane will beat your mere monoplane any day of the week.”
“It looks like we aint ever gonna know, don’t it?” observed Ashton sneeringly.
Alphonse Notochord whispered something to the bully. “Gotta get my plane ready,” muttered Ashton, and the two evildoers crept around behind the Yellow Streak.
On another part of the grounds could be found a brisk young fellow addressing a crowd of reporters.
“Then you didn’t come to compete in the races?” challenged a reporter.
“No indeed,” laughed the lad, “I came to-day as a spectator.”
“Is it true that you and the rest of the Motor Chums are working on an aeroplane with hovering capacities, Mr. Wilshire?”
“I’m honored that the world thinks so highly of me,” replied Tom, for indeed it was he, “but it seems that if I believe the papers, the Motor Chums are working on every invention under the sun.”
The shot told. As another reporter pushed forward with a new question, unnoticed by Tom, a slinking figure separated itself from the crowd and left hastily.
Above the grounds drifted the Skyhog, still aloft from the night before. Its deck showed signs of recent strenuous use, for empty bottles were in evidence, littered clothes, and other paraphernalia.
“Geee-sus,” groaned short Ned Eliot, “Where in hell are we, as Dante asked Virgil?”
“At the airmeet,” came the reply from Abby, or perhaps Jan. “Come look at the aeroplanes!”
Ned staggered experimentally to his feet. “I’m sick,” he observed, “sick, sick, sick as a dog.”
Harry was amusing himself by pointing out the different types of ’planes to the girls, while Dick seemed to be letting air out of the balloon. Ned joined the others at the railing, and threw up over the side.
“We’re gonna go down,” asserted Dick, and no-one countered his suggestion.
Somewhere below Alphonse Notochord was standing by as Clarence Ashton, grunting and sweating, checked out the engine of the plane.
“Do you think the ’plane will be ready to go by starting time?” Notochord inquired.
“It damn well better be,” exclaimed Ashton, “I aint losin’ no bet to a thievin’ Michiganian!”
“Well, as long as he can’t get into the air it seems fairly safe,” observed Notochord.
A familiar figure slunk forward. He attracted their attention and whined, “Tom Wilshire’s here at the fair.”
“Goddamn it!” exclaimed Ashton, “He don’t have no business bein’ here. He ought to be in jail back in Freemarket.”
“We were deceived,” observed Notochord. “They must have let him out just as soon as we left.”
“They shouldn’t’ve,” snarled Clarence, “Not on a treason charge.”
“They got to have more cops in their pocket than I thought,” grimaced the sneak, “My files say they can’t get out of anything more’n a misdemeanor.”
“Well, they did,” growled Clarence Ashton. “What’ve your files got to say about that?”
“I suppose that Chinese fellow’s no good,” observed Notochord.
“Probably lost track of them in Freemarket,” complained Ben.
“Well, that’s fuckin’ well finished,” exclaimed Ashton, straightening from his task. “This thing should fly like a hornet.”
Nearby, also preparing for the race, was the Michigander Ashton had alluded to. His preparations seemed mostly to be tearing out his hair and hurling it to the ground with some force.
“Say, what’s your problem?” exclaimed a young lad who had casually strolled up.
“My pilot’s ill, so I won’t have an opportunity to test my ship,” replied the other. “Can you help?”
“I believe so,” replied Tom goodnaturedly. “There’s little I don’t know about running airships.”
“I’m astonished,” exclaimed the Michigander. “You won’t take offense if I ask to see some credentials?”
“Of course not,” grinned Tom, “I wouldn’t take just anybody’s word for it either.” He slipped something from his billfold.
The other’s jaw dropped. “You’re not Tom Wilshire of the Famous Motor Chums, are you?” he gasped.
“That’s what my baptismal certificate says,” returned Tom.
“Well, then I apologize for doubting your ability,” he replied. “Imagine, doubting the ability of Tom Wilshire. I’m Sandy Lanthorn,” he exclaimed, extending his hand.
“I’m glad to make your acquaintance,” replied Tom. “Now, let’s take a look at your ship.”
Tom quickly ascertained that the controls were not so unfamiliar as to cause him any difficulty in handling the craft, and then began to examine the engine.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Lanthorn assured him, “I’ve checked all that myself.”
Tom looked it over for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “It seems all right to me,” he said. “Still, it’s always a good idea to check these things for oneself.”
“That’s true,” agreed Lanthorn. “I just can’t get over it. Me, talking to the leader of the Motor Chums.”
“One gets used to it in time,” Tom assured him.
“I’ve read all the Motor Chums books, you know,” said Lanthorn, “Wonderful stuff. How you do all that I don’t know.”
“Well, I suppose anyone could, if they put their mind to it,” replied Tom.
“Say, is Mr. Simpson around?” asked Lanthorn. “I’ve always wanted to meet him.”
“Mr. Simpson?” questioned Tom. “Oh, you mean Ersatz. No, he’s on a secret mission at this moment. No telling when he’ll be back, if ever.”
“That’s too bad,” observed Lanthorn, “I think he’s the all-round best of the Motor Chums.”
“Your airship works on a novel principle, doesn’t it?” Tom asked. “The arrangement of the wings—seven of them in a circle—is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“Why, yes, I designed it myself,” answered Lanthorn. “The air-flow in the fuselage is much improved that way.”
“Very ingenious,” Tom complimented him. “Is it patented?”
“Not yet,” was the reply, “I wish to determine whether it is worth patenting, first.”
“That’s sound,” approved Tom, taking a few notes, “When does the race start?”
“In about fifteen minutes,” Lanthorn told him.
Soon thereafter the Skyhog landed. Its occupants mingled with the crowd in some excitement.
“Look!” pointed Debbie, “there’s an aeroplane race just starting!”
This proved to be the case, and Dick soon cleared a path through the crowd for the others to follow. They reached the front of the crowd and thus had a fine view.
Four ’planes were involved. One was a bran-new monoplane, the most expensive model Assidual manufactured. The second was a ’plane of unique design, whose wings radiated from a central pivot; the third was a low-wing monoplane of peculiar construction, and the fourth was a biplane familiar to our heroes.
“The Yellow Streak!” exclaimed Ned. “That means Ashton’s in this race.”
“Clarence Ashton the bully?” asked Abby, “the one who’s played you so many mean tricks?”
“Yeah,” assented Dick.
They waited impatiently for the race to begin. Of course they all realized the difficulties involved in the preparations, for if the ’plane is to fly at all the altitude gage must be collaborated with the fuel tank, and the braces suspended from the cockpit, and many other adjustments made.
But a delay of another type was apparent.
“It aint fair to bring in somebody not listed on the official race-sheet,” protested a contestant.
“I’ll bring in anyone I like,” objected another.
A third figure broke in. “You’re a fine one to talk about fairness, Clarence Ashton,” he exclaimed. “Was it fair when you dynamited our newly-constructed electric shovel right before Edison Electric came by to look at it?”
Ned whispered to the others, “Why, that’s Tom Wilshire.”
Clarence Ashton made a gesture of disgust. “Aw, fuck,” he said, “Are you still harpin’ on that? That was a couple of years ago, and you never proved anything anyway.”
“I didn’t have to have proof,” exclaimed Tom, “You’re the only fellow in Freemarket mean enough to pull a stunt like that.”
“That aint so,” protested Ashton, “I’ll bet there’s dozens. Percy Folger’s done lower things’n me.”
“What about you, Tom Wilshire?” suggested Hangdog.
“What about me?” asked Tom calmly.
“You do some pretty good work in the sneaking line yourself,” Ben said deliberately.
“Well, thanks,” said Tom ironically, “Do you mean that I’m a sneak?”
“Damn right you are,” burst out Clarence.
“You got a lot of nerve, calling me a sneak,” observed Tom, “The best day’s work you ever did was losing the dirigible race to me.”
“I won that race,” proclaimed Ashton, “You just nipped in there and grabbed the prize before me!”
“Like blazes you won,” shouted Tom, “I beat you then and I’ll beat you now!”
“I can beat you at airship racin’ any day of the week,” Ashton retorted, “you lowdown sneak.”
“I’ll show you who the sneak is,” blazed Tom, leaping into the pilot’s seat. “Come on, Lanthorn.”
The ’plane motor screeched and wailed as Tom started it. In the other plane Ashton caused the motor to sputter into life, then leaped in beside his crony, Notochord.
All four pilots signaled their readiness. The flagman waved his yellow flags and then the starting cannon boomed in the distance. The aeroplanes started down the runway, and one by one took to the air.
One came to immediate grief. The pilot, perhaps through inexperience, had forgotten to put oil in the fuse-box. The monoplane flipped over and was immediately covered with flame.
The Yellow Streak took to the air without a hitch and ascended rapidly. Ashton wasted no time in speeding the ’plane on its way, but before he was fairly started the Assidual had already vanished.
Wilshire chose a more spectacular mode of ascent. He swooped low over the crowd, spinning the ’plane quickly, and then plowed through a pile of sawdust waiting to be spread. He then knocked the flags from the flagman’s hands, ascended in a quick series of loops and sought the horizon.
“I’ve never seen anyone do things like that with an aeroplane before!” exclaimed Jan.
“Well, that’s Tom Wilshire’s specialty,” observed Ned.
“What is?” asked the girl.
“Doing things with aeroplanes that haven’t been done before,” replied Ned. “I just hope he can still win the race.”
The race course was so set out that the contestants must fly to a tower a mile or so off, circle it, and return to the field. A watcher was situated at the tower to ensure fair play.
There was therefore little for the crowd to see until the return of the aeroplanes. Some in the crowd waited eagerly for the wreck to cool enough for them to come close, so as to get fragments for souvenirs or spare parts.
“It certainly is a shame,” declared Debbie, “that a good fellow like Tom has to compete against low-down scoundrels.”
“They shouldn’t allow people like that Ashton to race,” agreed Abby, or Jan.
“It’d sure be easier to win if they weren’t in it,” observed Ned.
“If only moral rectitude could be turned to our advantage,” murmured Harry.
“Or if we could somehow turn their rascality to account,” suggested Ned.
“Say, now that is a veritable stroke of genius,” commented Harry, a smile encroaching upon his features, “I must make a phone call.” He vanished even as he spoke.
“A phone call to whom?” frowned Jan.
Ned shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Harry’s call apparently did not take long, for he was back at once.
“All right,” insisted Ned, “Knock off the mystery. Who’d you call?”
“I merely placed a call to our friend Ingram,” observed Harry, “and told him that two of the plotters were trying to escape in an aeroplane. Secret Police anti-aircraft guns are being set up to bring them down.”
“Wow! What a stunt!” exclaimed Ned, “That’s clever enough to be a Wilshire plot.”
Anticipation showed on every face when the sound of a returning aeroplane could be heard in the distance. Which of the contestants would it be? A great cheer came from the crowd when it was discovered to be the ’plane which Tom Wilshire piloted. There was no other ’plane in sight.
It circled the field twice and then settled on the earth like a great fly. Ashen-faced, Sandy Lanthorn stumbled out, and stared about him in a dazed manner. The confident young aviator put in an appearance from the other side of the ship, grinning cheerfully. With a flourish, he accepted the prize-money and made a short speech. Lanthorn babbled incoherently and gesticulated violently.
With a bow, Tom finished his speech and strode off the field. The crowd waited for a period of time and then began to drift away also. The other aeroplanes failed to show. Ned and Harry knew the Secret Police had Clarence and Alphonse. But the disappearance of the Assidual was a mystery to them. (And I may as well say here that the mystery never was cleared up, and the fate of the unlucky aviator remains unknown to this day.)