Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat/Chapter 22
"Jump! jump!" cried Mr. Swift, leaping to his feet and motioning to the man on the trapeze of the balloon. But it is doubtful whether or not the performer heard him. Certainly he could not see the frantic motions of the inventor. "Why doesn't he jump?" Mr. Swift went on piteously to the two lads. "He'll surely be burned to death if he hangs on there!"
"It's too far to leap!" exclaimed Tom. "He's a good way up in the air, though it looks like only a short distance. He would be killed if he dropped now."
"He ought to have a parachute," added Ned. "Most of those men do when they go up in a balloon. Why doesn't he come down in that? I wonder how the balloon took fire?"
"Maybe he hasn't a parachute," suggested Tom, while he slowed down the motor-boat still more so as to remain very nearly under the blazing balloon.
"Yes, he has!" cried Ned. "See, it's hanging to one side of the big bag. He ought to cut loose. He could save himself then. Why doesn't he?"
The balloon was slowly twisting about, gradually settling to the surface of the lake, but all the while the flames were becoming fiercer and the black clouds of smoke increased in size.
"There, see the parachute!" went on Ned.
The twisting of the bag had brought into view the parachute or big, umbrella-shaped bag, which would have enabled the man to safely drop to the surface of the lake. Without it he would have hit the water with such force that he would have been killed as surely as if he had struck the solid earth. But the boys and Mr. Swift also saw something else, and this was that the balloon was on fire on the same side where the parachute was suspended.
"Look! look!" shouted Tom, bringing his boat to a stop. "That's why he can't jump! He can't reach the parachute!"
By this time the balloon had settled so low that the actions of the man could be plainly seen. That he was in great agony of fear, as well as in great pain from the terrific heat over his head was evident. He shifted about on the trapeze bar, now hanging by one hand, so as to bring his body a little farther below the blazing end of the bag, then, when one arm tired, he would hang by the other. If the balloon would only come down more quickly it would get to within such a short distance of the water that the man could safely make the drop.
But the immense canvas bag was settling so slowly, for it was still very buoyant, that considerable time must elapse before it would be near enough to the water to make it safe for the unfortunate man to let go the trapeze.
"Oh, if we could only do something!" cried Tom. "We have to remain here helpless and watch him burn to death. It's awful!"
The three in the boat continued to gaze upward. They could see the man making frantic efforts to reach his parachute from time to time. Once, as a little current of air blew the flames and smoke to one side, he thought he had a chance. Up on the trapeze bar he pulled himself and then edged along it in an endeavor to grasp the ring of the parachute. Once he almost had hold of that and also the cord, which ran to a knife blade. This cord, being pulled, would sever the rope that bound it to the balloon, and he would be comparatively safe, so he might drop to the lake. But, just as he was about to grasp the ring and cord, the smoke came swirling down on him and the hungry flames seemed to put out their fiery tongues to devour him. He had to slide back and once more hung by his hands.
"I thought he was saved then," whispered Tom, and even the whisper sounded loud in the silence.
Several men came running along the shore of the lake now. They saw the occupants in the Arrow and cried out:
"Why don't you save him? Go to his rescue!"
"What can we do?" asked Ned quietly of his two friends, but he did not trouble to answer the men on shore, who probably did not know what they were saying.
The motor-boat had drifted from a spot under the unfortunate balloonist, and at a word from his father the young inventor started the engine and steered the craft back directly under the blazing bag again.
"If he does drop, perhaps we may be able to pick him up," said Mr. Swift. "I wish we could save him!"
A cry from Ned startled Tom and his father, and their eyes, that had momentarily been directed away from the burning bag high in the air, were again turned toward it.
"The balloon is falling apart!" exclaimed Ned, "It's all up with him now!"
Indeed it did seem so, for pieces of the burning canvas, blazing and smoking, were falling in a shower from the part of the bag already consumed, and the fiery particles were fairly raining down on the man. But he still had his wits about him, though his perilous position was enough to make any one lose his mind, and he swung from side to side on the bar, shifting skilfully with his hands and dodging the larger particles of blazing canvas. When some small sparks fell on his clothing he beat them out with one hand, while with the other he clung to the trapeze.
There was scarcely any wind or the man's plight might have been more bearable, for the current of air would have carried the smoke and fire to one side. As it was, most of the smoke and flames went straight up, save now and then, when a draught created by the heat would swirl the black clouds down on the performer, hiding him from sight for a second or two. A breeze would have carried the sparks away instead of letting them fall on him.
Nearer and nearer to the surface of the lake sank the balloon. By this time the crowd on the bank had increased and there were excited opinions as to what was best to do. But the trouble was that little could be done. If the man could hold out until he got near enough to the water to let go he might yet be saved, but this would not be for some time at the present rate the balloon was falling. The performer realized this, and, as the fire was getting hotter, he made another desperate attempt to reach the parachute. It was unavailing and he had to drop back, hanging below the slender bar.
Suddenly there came a puff of wind, fanning the faces of those in the motor-boat, and they looked intently to observe if there was any current as high as was the balloonist. They saw the big bag sway to one side and the flames broke out more fiercely as they caught the draught. The balloon moved slowly down the lake.
"Keep after it, Tom!" urged his father. "We may be able to save him!"
The lad increased the speed of his engine and Ned, who was at the wheel, gave it a little twist. Then, with a suddenness that was startling, the blazing canvas airship began to settle swiftly toward the water. It had lost much of its buoyancy.
"Now he can jump! He's near enough to the water now!" cried Tom.
But a new danger arose. True, the balloon was rapidly approaching the surface of the lake and in a few seconds more would be within such a short distance that a leap would not be fatal. But the burning bag was coming straight down and scarcely would the man be in the water ere the fiery canvas mass would be on top of him.
In such an event he would either be burned to death or so held down that drowning must quickly follow.
"If there was only wind enough to carry the balloon beyond him after he jumped he could do it safely!" cried Ned.
Tom said nothing. He was measuring, with his eye, the distance the balloon had yet to go and also the distance away the motor-boat was from where it would probably land.
"He can do it!" exclaimed the young inventor.
"How?" asked his father.
For answer Tom caught up a newspaper he had purchased at the hotel that morning. Rolling it quickly into a cone, so that it formed a rough megaphone, he put the smaller end to his mouth, and, pointing the larger opening at the balloonist, he called out:
"Drop into the lake! We'll pick you up before the bag falls on you! Jump! Let go now!"
The balloonist heard and understood. So did Ned and Mr. Swift. Tom's quick wit had found a way to save the man.
Faster and faster the blazing bag settled toward the surface of the water. It was now merely a mushroom-shaped piece of burning and smoking canvas, yet it was supporting the man almost as a parachute would have done.
With one look upward to the burning mass above him and a glance downward to the lake, the aeronaut let go his hold. Like a shot he came down, holding his body rigid and straight as a stick, for he knew how to fall into water, did that balloonist.
Tom Swift was ready for him. No sooner had the lad called his directions through the megaphone than the young inventor had speeded up his engine to the top notch.
"Steer so as to pick him up!" Tom cried to Ned, who was at the wheel. "Pass by him on a curve, and, as soon as I grab him, put the wheel over so as to get out from under the balloon."
It was a risky thing to do, but our hero had it all planned out. He made a loop of the boat's painter, and, hurrying to the bow, leaned over as far as he could, holding the rope in readiness. His idea was to have the balloonist grab the strands and be pulled out of danger by the speedy motor-boat, for the blazing canvas would cover such an extent of water that the man could not have swum out of the danger zone in time.
Down shot the balloonist and down more slowly settled the collapsed bag, yet not so slowly that there was any time to spare. It needed only a few seconds to drop over the performer, to burn and smother him.
Into the water splashed the man, disappearing from sight as when a stick is dropped in, point first. Ned was alert and steered the boat to the side in which the man's face was, for he concluded that the aeronaut would strike out in that direction when he came up. The Arrow was now directly under the blazing balloon and cries of fear from the watchers on shore urged upon Tom and his companions the danger of their position. But they had to take some risk to rescue the man.
"There he is!" cried Mr. Swift, who was on the watch, leaning over the side of the boat. Tom and Ned saw him at the same instant. Ned shifted his wheel and the young inventor bent over, holding out the rope for the man to grasp. He saw it and struck out toward the Arrow. But there was no need for him to go far. An instant more and the speeding motor-boat shot past him. He grabbed the rope and Tom, aided by Mr. Swift, began to lift him out of the water.
"Quick! To one side, Ned!" yelled Tom, for the heat of the descending mass of burning canvas struck him like a furnace blast.
Ned needed no urging. With a swirl of the screw the Arrow shot herself out of the way, carrying the aeronaut with her. A moment later the burning balloon, or what there was left of it, settled down into the lake, hissing angrily as the fire was quenched by the water and completely covering the spot where, but a few seconds before, the man had been swimming. He had been saved in the nick of time.