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RIDING THE TORNADO.

from The Lost City





Whether it was that the air-ship itself had increased its speed
during those few moments of dense obscurity, or whether the madly
whirling winds had taken a retrograde movement at that precise
time, could only be a matter of conjecture; but the ominous fact
remained.

The aerostat was fairly over the danger-line, and, despite all
efforts being made to the contrary, was being drawn directly
towards that howling, crashing, thundering mass of destructive
energy.

Already the inmates felt themselves being sucked from the
flying-machine, and instinctively tightened their grip upon
hand-rail and floor, gasping and oppressed, breath failing, and
ribs apparently being crushed in by that horrible pressure.

"Hold fast--for life!" pantingly screamed Professor Featherwit,
as he strove in vain to check or change the course of his
aeromotor, now for the first time beyond control of that
master-hand.

A few seconds of soul-trying suspense, during which the
flying-machine shivered from stem to stern, almost like a human
creature in its death-agony, creaking and groaning, with shrill
sounds coming from those expanded, curved wings, as the suction
increased; then--

A merciful darkness fell over those sorely imperilled beings, and
the vessel itself seemed about to be overwhelmed by an avalanche
of sand and dirt and mixed debris. Then came a dizzy, rocking
lurch, followed by a shock which nearly cast uncle and nephews
from their frantic holds, and the air-ship appeared to be whirled
end for end, cast hither and yon, wrenched and twisted as though
all must go to ruin together.

A blast as of superheated air smote upon them one moment, while
in the next they were whirled through an icy atmosphere, then
tossed dizzily to and fro, as their too-frail vehicle spun upward
as though on a journey to the far-away stars.

A shrieking blast of wind served to briefly clear away the
choking dust, affording the trio a fleeting glimpse of their
immediate surroundings: hurtling sticks and stones, splintered
tops of trees, shrubs with wildly lashing roots freshly torn from
the bed of years, all madly spinning through a blinding,
scorching, freezing mass of crazily battling winds, the different
currents twining and weaving in and out, as so many hideous
serpents at play.

A moment thus, then that horrid uproar grew still more deafening,
and the air-ship was whirled high and higher, in a dizzy dance,
those luckless creatures clinging fast to whatever their frenzied
hands might clutch, feeling that this was the end of all.

Further sight was denied them. They were powerless to move a
limb, save as jerked painfully by those shrieking currents.
Breath was taken away, and an enormous weight bore down upon
them, threatening to produce a fatal collapse through their ribs
giving way.

Upward whirled the flying-machine, powerless now as those
wretched beings within its cunning shape, smitten sharply here
and there by some of those ascending missiles, yet without
receiving material injury; until a last shivering lurch came,
ending in a sudden fall.

A dizzying swoop downward, but not to death and destruction, for
the aerostat alighted easily upon what appeared to be a sort of
air-cushion, and, though unsteady for a brief space, then settled
upon an even keel.

"Cling fast--for life!" huskily gasped the professor, unwittingly
repeating the caution which had last crossed his lips, which he
had ever since been striving to enunciate, faithful to his
guardianship over these, his sole surviving relatives.

"I don't--where are we?"

Waldo lifted his head to peer with half-blind eyes about them, in
which action he was imitated by both brother and uncle; but, for
a brief space, they were none the wiser.

All around the aeromotor rose a wall of whirling winds, seemingly
impenetrable, apparently within reach of an extended arm,
changing colour with each fraction of a second, hideously
beautiful, yet never twice the same in blend or mixture.

A hollow, strangely sounding roar was perceptible; one instant
coming as from the far distance, then from nigh at hand, causing
the air-ship to quiver and tremble, as a sentient being might in
the presence of a torturing death.

"Look--upward!" panted Bruno, a few seconds later, his face as
pale as that of a corpse, in spite of the dirt and blotches of
sticky mud with which he had been peppered during that dizzy
whirl.

Mechanically his companions in peril obeyed, catching breath
sharply, as they saw a clear sky and yellow sunshine far
above,--so awfully far they were, that it seemed like looking
upward from the bottom of an enormously deep well.

And then the marvellous truth flashed upon the brain of Phaeton
Featherwit, almost robbing him of all power of speech. Still he
managed to jerkily ejaculate:

"We're inside,--riding the--tornado--itself!"

Then those whirling winds closed quickly above them, shutting out
the sunlight, hiding the heavens from their view, enclosing that
vehicle and its occupants, as they were borne away into unknown
regions, within the very heart of the tornado itself!

Yet, incredible as it surely seems, no actual harm came to the
trio or to their flying-machine as it swayed gently upon its airy
cushion, although from every side came the horrid roar of
destruction, while ever and anon they could glimpse a wrestling
tree or torn mass of shrubbery whizzing upward and outward, to be
flung far away beyond the vortex of electrical winds.

Once more came that awful sense of suffocation. That painted
pall closed down upon them, robbing their lungs of air, one
instant fairly crisping their hair with a touch of fire, only to
send an icy chill to their veins a moment later.

In vain they struggled, fighting for breath, as a fish gasps when
swung from its native element. While that horrid pressure
endured, man, youth, and boy alike were powerless.

Again the pall lifted, folding back and blending with those madly
circling currents, once again affording a glimpse of yonder
far-away heavens, so marvellously clear, and bright, and peaceful
in seeming!

Weakened by those terrible moments, Bruno and Waldo lay gasping,
trembling, faint of heart and ill of body, yet filling their
lungs with comparatively pure air,--pity there was so little of
it to win!

Professor Featherwit still had thought and care for his nephews
rather than himself alone, and pantingly spoke, as he dragged
himself to the snug locker, where many important articles had
been stowed away:

"Here--suck life--compressed air!"

With husky cries the brothers caught at the tubes offered, the
method of working which had so often been explained by their
relative.

Once more the tube became a chamber, and that horrid force
threatened to flatten their bodies; but the worst had passed, for
that precious cylinder now gave them air to inhale, and they were
enabled to wait for the lifting of the cloud once more.

Thanks to this important agency, strength and energy both of body
and of mind now came back to the air-voyagers, and after a little
they could lift their heads to peer around them with growing
wonder and curiosity.

There was little room left for doubting the wondrous truth, and
yet belief was past their powers during those first few minutes.

All around them whirled and sped those maddened winds, curling
and twisting, rising and falling, mixing in and out as though
some unknown power might be weaving the web of destiny.

Now dull, now brilliant, never twice the same, but ever changing
in colour as in shape, while stripes and zigzags of lightning
played here and there with terrifying menace, those walls of wind
held an awfully fascinating power for uncle and nephews.

From every side came deadened sounds which could bear but a
single interpretation: the tornado was still in rapid motion,
was still tearing and rending, crushing and battering, leaving
dire destruction and ruin to mark its advance, and these were the
sounds that recorded its ugly work.

In goodly measure revived by the compressed air, which was
regulated in flow to suit his requirements by a device of his
own, Professor Featherwit now looked around with something of his
wonted animation, heedless of his own peril for the moment, so
great was his interest in this marvellous happening.

So utterly incredible was it all that, during those first few
minutes of rallying powers, he dared not express the belief which
was shaping itself, gazing around in quest of still further
confirmation.

He took note of the windy walls about their vessel, rising upward
for many yards, irregular in shape and curvature here and there,
but retaining the general semblance of a tube with flaring top.
He peered over the edge of the basket, to draw back dizzily as he
saw naught but yeasty, boiling, seething clouds below,--a
veritable air-cushion which had served to save the pet of his
brain from utter destruction at the time of falling within--

Yes, there was no longer room for doubt,--they were actually
inside the distorted balloon, so dreaded by all residents of the
tornado belt!

"What is it, uncle?" huskily asked Bruno, likewise rallying under
that beneficial influence. "Where are we now?"

"Where I'm wishing mighty hard we wasn't, anyhow!" contributed
Waldo, with something of his usual energy, although, judging from
his face and eyes, the youngster had suffered more severely than
either of his comrades in peril.

Professor Featherwit broke into a queerly sounding laugh, as he
waved his free hand in exultation before speaking:

"Where no living being ever was before us, my lads,--riding the
tornado like a--ugh!"

The air-ship gave an awkward lurch just then, and down went the
little professor to thump his head heavily against one corner of
the locker. Swaying drunkenly from side to side, then tossing up
and down, turning in unison with those fiercely whirling clouds,
the aeromotor seemed at the point of wreck and ruin.

Desperately the trio clung to the life-lines, clenching teeth
upon the life-giving tubes as that terrible pressure increased so
much that it seemed impossible for the human frame to longer
resist.

Fortunately that ordeal did not long endure, and again relief
came to those so sorely oppressed. A brief gasping, sighing,
stretching as the aerostat resumed its level position, merely
rocking easily within that partial vacuum, and then Waldo huskily
suggested:

"Looks like the blame thing was sick at the stomach!"

No doubt this was meant for a feeble attempt at joking, but
Professor Featherwit took it for earnest, and made quick reply:

"That is precisely the case, my dear lad, and I am greatly joyed
to find that you are not so badly frightened but that you can
assist me in taking notes of this wondrous happening. To think
that we are the ones selected for--"

"I say, uncle Phaeton."

"Well, my lad?"

"If this thing is really sick at the stomach, when will it erupt?
I'd give a dollar and a half to just get out o' this, science or
no science, notes or no notes at all!"

"Patience, my dear boy," gravely spoke the little man of science,
busily studying those eddying currents like one seeking a fairly
safe method of extrication from peril. "It may come far sooner
than you think, and with results more disastrous than feeble
words can tell. We surely are a burden such as a tornado must be
wholly unaccustomed to, and I really believe these alternations
are spasmodic efforts of the cloud itself to vomit us forth;
hence you were nearer right than you thought in making use of
that expression."

Just then came a rush of icy air, and Bruno pantingly cried:

"I'm swelling up--like Aesop's--bullfrog!"





Next: THE PROFESSOR'S LITTLE EXPERIMENT.

Previous: PROFESSOR FEATHERWIT TAKING NOTES.



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