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Authors: Willard Price

09 Lion Adventure (6 page)

BOOK: 09 Lion Adventure
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‘Well, we’ll just have to make the best of it,’ Hal said. “The men are working on three miles of track. If we were up high enough we could watch the whole stretch. We wondered if you could lend us the Stork.’

Crosby tapped the desk with his pencil as he thought this over.

‘Of course I can,’ he said finally. ‘But I’m not sure it’s just what you need. An aeroplane motor makes an infernal racket. It will scare off any man-eater. By the time you land and are ready to shoot, he’ll be gone. A helicopter would be better, but it’s noisy too. How about a balloon?’

Hal laughed. ‘Where would we get a balloon?’

‘Easy enough. You’ve heard of Leal’s balloon safari?’

Hal nodded. Stories about it had been running in the Nairobi and Mombasa papers. Leal, an Englishman, had been drifting over East Africa in a balloon, taking photographs of the animals. Used to looking at the ground, they rarely noticed the balloon, even when it hung only a hundred feet above them. It made no sound, and unless Leal and his two companions spoke there was nothing to disturb the animals grazing or resting or prowling beneath.

‘A balloon would be perfect,’ Hal said. ‘But why should Leal lend us his balloon?’

‘He won’t, but I will. He has returned to England, but

just before he left he made us a present of the balloon for observation work in Tsavo - just to be sure that those poachers you scared out don’t come back. It’s anchored down near Mzima Springs right now. Would you care to go down and take a look at it?’

The offer was eagerly accepted. A short ride south, and there was the balloon hovering over open country along the Tsavo River and the large water-hole known as Mzima Springs. The trail line was lashed to a great stump, holding the balloon firmly in place. A nylon rope ladder reached from the basket to the ground. In the basket stood an African ranger with a pair of binoculars glued to his eyes. From this vantage, as high as the roof of a ten-storey building, he could keep watch over some ten square miles of territory.

At the foot of the ladder stood another ranger with his bicycle, ready to ride back and give the alarm if poachers were sighted.

At a signal from Crosby, the look-out climbed down.

‘Not room in the basket for four,’ the warden explained. ‘Let’s go up.’

They climbed the swaying rope ladder and stepped into the basket.

It was truly a basket with woven sides and bottom and you could see through the cracks. It wobbled and bounced as they came down into it. It was a rather close fit, little more than three feet square.

Eight ropes fastened to the edge of the basket rose to a ring and from the ring twelve lines went up to the balloon itself. The balloon, said Crosby, was about forty feet in diameter.

‘What holds it up?’ Roger asked. ‘Hot air?’

 

‘No,’ Crosby said. ‘A hot-air balloon with the same lifting ability would have to be more than three times as large. Coal gas would do better and helium even better. But the best lift comes from hydrogen and that’s what is in that bag. Hydrogen is the lightest gas known. It is fourteen times as light as air.’

Roger looked up. It struck him as odd that the bottom of the bag was open. There was a hole big enough for a man to crawl through.

‘Doesn’t the gas ever come out through that hole?’ he asked.

‘No, because the gas, being light, tries to go up, never down.’ ‘So if we weren’t tied to that stump we’d go up.’ ‘We certainly would.’

‘And how could we make the thing come down?’ There’s a way to do that. This is a valve line. It goes right through the balloon to a valve at the top of the bag. Pull that cord and it lets a little of the gas out and the balloon will stop going up. Let out a little more gas and it will slowly come down. You can quit any time when you are low enough to suit you.’

‘Of course you lose some gas that way,’ said Hal. ‘Suppose you want to go up again. What do you do?’

‘See these bags under your feet? They’re full of sand. You throw out enough sand to lighten the load and up you go. You start out with seventy of those small bags of sand. You can rise to any height you like, according to the amount of sand you toss out.’ ‘It sounds easy,’ Roger said.

‘I don’t want to fool you,’ the warden replied. It isn’t easy. It’s really a very tricky business. The air is full of

currents going up or down or crosswise. A plane would just plough through them, bumping a little. But a balloon has no motor - it goes where the wind goes, up or down or across. If there’s a strong down-draught, you may not be able to throw out sand fast enough to keep it from striking the ground. If you get caught in an up-draught you may let out too much gas so that when you get out of the draught you haven’t enough to hold you up and you drop like a stone. You have to watch that altimeter all the time. Of course you won’t have these troubles so long as the balloon is anchored to the ground as it is now. But if the trail line comes loose, or anybody cuts it, you’re in real trouble unless you know how to navigate this crazy craft.’

Hal thought of certain persons who might like to cut the trail line. Roger thought of nothing but the delightful sensation of floating in a basket high above the earth.

It was a new experience for both boys. Planes were an old story to them. Hal had grown up with his father’s private plane and was a qualified pilot. Roger was as much at home in a plane as on the ground. Ballooning was the oldest method of air travel, and yet to them it was the newest. It was an entirely fresh experience.

It seemed surprising that there was no engine roar. The silence was astonishing. There was no sound but the whisper of the breeze through the rigging or the creak of the basket under their feet.

When you were shut up in a plane’s cabin it was almost like being on the ground. But here, standing in the open air, looking away without even a pane of glass between you and the landscape, able to see up to the sky past the balloon or over the edge of the basket straight down to the ground, you felt as free as a bird in space or a passenger on a Magic Carpet.

‘Does this balloon have a name?’ Roger asked.

“There it is, on that banner tied to the bag.’

The name was Jules Verne.

‘Leal must have been a fan of Jules Verne,’ Crosby said. ‘You remember Verne’s famous book, Five weeks in a balloon. Leal must have liked it, for he has framed one quotation from it and here it is on the inside of the basket.’

The boys crouched down and read the paragraph from Five weeks in a balloon:

‘If I’m too hot, I go up; if I’m cold, I come down. I come to a mountain, I fly over it; a precipice, I cross it; a river, I cross it; a storm, I rise above it; a torrent, I skim over it like a bird. I travel without fatigue, and halt without need of rest. I soar above the new cities. I fly with the swiftness of the storm; sometimes near the limit of the air, sometimes a hundred feet above the ground, with the map of Africa unwinding below my eyes in the greatest atlas of the world.’

‘He sure makes it sound good,’ said enthusiastic Roger. ‘By the way, what’s that other rope - the one near the valve line?’

‘I hope you never have to pull that,’ Crosby said. ‘It’s the rip line. When you pull the valve line you let out just a little gas, slowly. If you pull the rip line, you rip a big hole is the top of the balloon and instantly release all the gas.’

‘Why would we ever want to do that?’

‘Suppose the worst happens,’ said the warden. ‘Suppose a storm has caught you and you are being swept along close to the ground at a terrible speed and there are big rocks ahead, or trees, and you are bound to crash into them and be killed unless you do something fast. You pull the rip line. It lets out all the gas, the balloon collapses, the basket drags along the ground for a moment and then stops. You have probably been bruised up a bit, but you’re still alive. Of course, you’re in a devil of a fix. You may be a hundred miles from the nearest road. You could sew up the rip in the balloon, but you couldn’t refill the bag because you haven’t any hydrogen. You don’t carry cylinders of hydrogen in the basket because the cylinders are too heavy. They are made of steel and each one weighs a ton - they have to be strong because the gas inside is under very high pressure. So there you are with a busted balloon and no gas.’

‘What do you do then? Radio for help?’

‘The balloon doesn’t carry a wireless. Perhaps you walk a hundred miles to the road. Perhaps you stay where you are and spread out the bag in the hope that some search party in a plane will notice it. Whatever you do, your chances are pretty slim. So I hope you never have to pull that rip line.’ He grinned. ‘Perhaps now that I’ve told you what can happen you’ll think twice about trusting yourselves to a balloon.’

But Hal’s reply indicated that he was not too badly frightened. ‘How do we get it up to the tracks?’

‘That’s simple. We’ll just moor the trail line to the car and tow it.’

They climbed over the edge. Hal and Mark Crosby went down the ladder. Roger slid down the trail line. He took the rub of the rope on his safari trousers so that his hands were not burned. He reached the ground before the men were halfway down the ladder. They had not seen him pass. When they touched the ground they looked up. ‘Where’s that kid?’ puzzled Hal. ‘Just behind you,’ said Roger. Hal wheeled about. ‘How did you get down so fast?’ ‘Jumped,’ said Roger.

Hal began to untie the trail line from the stump. ‘Wait a moment,’ said Crosby. ‘If you get that thing loose, you’ll be carried up out of sight in one minute flat. Let’s anchor it first.’

He took the loose end of the rope and fastened it with a slipknot to the rear end of the car. Then while the two boys and the two rangers put their weight on the trail rope Crosby freed it from the stump.

‘Let go.’ The men let go and the trail line snapped as tight as a bow-string.

“We’ll go to the camp first and pick up a few cylinders of gas,’ Crosby said.

On the way, the warden asked more questions about the lion hunt. ‘What lion did you km?’

‘It was a lioness. She was giving her cub his first lesson in man-eating.’ ‘Pity to have to kill a female with young.’ ‘I know. But she jumped me and I had no choice. We’re taking care of the cub. We’re giving it cow’s milk. But it would make a more balanced diet if we could add some cod liver oil, glucose, bonemeal, and a little salt.’ ‘l can supply all that,’ said Crosby. ‘How many other

man-eaters do you suppose there are?’

‘We’ve only seen one. But I don’t know how one lion could kill so many men.’

‘It’s quite possible,’ the warden said. ‘You remember in the history of “the man-eaters of Tsavo” just two man-eaters were responsible for the deaths of more than a hundred men. What sort of lion is this one that you’ve seen?’

‘He’s a monster. Grandest lion you ever saw. Nearly a dozen feet long, a good quarter ton, magnificent tawny coat and a coal-black mane. He’s as clever as he is big. He appears and disappears like a ghost. The Africans think he’s an evil spirit. He seems to kill just for the joy of killing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the mate of the lioness I shot. He seems bent on taking a terrible revenge for her death. He turns up when we don’t expect him and is gone before we can get to him. But the balloon will help. From way up there we ought to be able to spot him long before he gets to the tracks. Then we’ll slide down the trail line to our car, drive up the road that runs alongside the railway, and by the time he gets to the tracks we’ll be there waiting for him.’

‘I hope it works out that way,’ said the warden, bringing the car to a stop in the camp.

Men poured out of the cabins and tents to see this strange spectacle - a combination of car and balloon. Some were rangers, some European and American guests. But the ones who really looked good to the boys were their own thirty blacks who had so ably helped them to clear Tsavo of poachers and, before that, had worked so faithfully and fearlessly taking wild animals alive to be shipped to the world’s zoos.

 

There was Toto, Hal’s gunbearer, with a grin a yard wide. There was Joro, the chief tracker, and there was brave Mali with his magnificent Alsatian dog, Zulu. Here were all the old friends of many thrilling adventures.

They were full of questions. ‘Why do we have to stay here?’ ‘Why can’t we be with you?’ ‘Why won’t King Ku let us help you?’

Hal could only assure them that he and Roger would be back with them soon.

‘I think we have only one more man-eater to get,’ he said. ‘Then our job will be done.’

He didn’t say that this one man-eater was equal to a dozen ordinary lions and finishing him off would be no simple matter.

Two extra cylinders of hydrogen were placed in the car and the necessary foods and medicines for the cub.

Then, with a cheerfulness they did not feel, Hal and Roger said goodbye to their friends, checked the trail line to make sure that the balloon was securely hitched to the car, and set out on the twenty-mile trip to the railway campground.

It was necessary to go slowly. Towing a thirty-foot bubble at the end of a hundred-foot line was quite different from towing a vehicle at ground level. The balloon must be kept overhead. If Hal drove fast the balloon would lag behind, lose altitude, and might even drag along the ground. In that case the gas would escape through the hole in the bottom of the bag and the entire envelope would crumple up.

Then there was the wind to reckon with. Luckily the air was reasonably still, but now and then a gust would

carry the balloon in front of the car or behind it or cause it to brush against the trees on either side of the road. There was the constant danger that a broken-off branch might puncture the huge bag. Then out would go the gas, and hundreds of yards of nylon would bury the car and the two boys and their hopes.

The first animals they met created no problem. A surprised leopard slunk away into the shadow of the woods. A big-jawed hippo was so intent upon eating a path three feet wide through the grass that it did not notice the balloon over its head. An irritable rhino disturbed by the noise of the engine looked up from his dinner of thorns. But if he saw the balloon at all he probably mistook it for a cloud, since rhinos need glasses.

BOOK: 09 Lion Adventure
2.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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