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Blake was silent a moment after making this portentous announcement. Then he leaned forward, with the evident intention of picking up the curious, ticking box.
"Look out!" cried Joe, grasping his chum's hand.
"What for?" Blake wanted to know.
"It might be loaded—go off, you know!"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Blake. "It's probably only some sort of foreign alarm clock, and he stuffed it in there so the ticking wouldn't keep him awake. I've done the same thing when I didn't want to get up. I used to chuck mine under the bed, or stuff it in an old shoe. What's the matter with you, anyhow? You act scared," for Joe's face was actually white—that is as white as it could be under the tan caused by his outdoor life.
"Well, I—I thought," stammered Joe. "Perhaps that was a—"
"Who's getting suspicious now?" demanded Blake with a laugh. "Talk about me! Why, you're way ahead!"
"Oh, well, I guess I did imagine too much," admitted Joe with a little laugh. "It probably is an alarm clock, as you say. I wonder what we'd better do with it? If we leave it there—"
He was interrupted by the opening of the stateroom door and as both boys turned they saw their Spanish friend standing on the threshold staring at them.
"Well!" he exclaimed, and there was an angry note in his voice—a note the boys had never before noticed, for Mr. Alcando was of a sunny and happy disposition, and not nearly as quick tempered as persons of his nationality are supposed to be.
"I suppose it does look; as though we were rummaging in your things," said Blake, deciding instantly that it was best to be frank. "But we heard a curious ticking noise when we came down here, and we traced it to your bunk. We didn't know what it might be, and thought perhaps you had put your watch in the bed, and might have forgotten to take it out. We looked, and found this—"
"Ah, my new alarm clock!" exclaimed Mr. Alcando, and what seemed to be a look of relief passed over his face. He reached in among the bed clothes and picked up the curious brass-bound ticking box, with its many little metallic projections.
"I perhaps did not tell you that I am a sort of inventor," the Spaniard went on. "I have not had much success, but I think my new alarm clock is going to bring me in some money. It works on a new principle, but I am giving it a good test, privately, before I try to put it on the market."
He took the brass-bound, ticking box from the bed, and must have adjusted the mechanism in a way Blake or Joe did not notice, for the "click-click" stopped at once, and the room seemed curiously still after it.
"Some day I will show you how it works," the young Spaniard went on. "I think, myself, it is quite what you call—clever."
And with that he put the box in a trunk, and closed the lid with a snap that threw the lock.
"And now, boys, we will soon be there!" he cried with a gay laugh. "Soon we will be in the beautiful land of Panama, and will see the marvels of that great canal. Are you not glad? And I shall begin to learn more about making moving pictures! That will please me, though I hope I shall not be so stupid a pupil as to make trouble for you, my friends, to whom I owe so much."
He looked eagerly at the boys.
"We'll teach you all we know, which isn't such an awful lot," said Joe. "And I don't believe you'll be slow."
"You have picked up some of it already," went on Blake, for while delaying over making their arrangements in New York the boys and their pupil had gone into the rudiments of moving picture work.
"I am glad you think so," returned the other. "I shall be glad when we are at work, and more glad still, when I can, with my own camera, penetrate into the fastness of the jungle, along the lines of our railroad, and show what we have done to bring civilization there. The film will be the eyes of the world, watching our progress," he added, poetically.
"Why don't you come up on deck," he proceeded. "It is warm down here."
"We just came down," said Joe, "but it is hot," for they were approaching nearer to the Equator each hour.
While the boys were following the young Spaniard up on deck, Joe found a chance to whisper to Blake:
"I notice he was not at all anxious to show us how his brass-box alarm clock worked."
"No," agreed Blake in a low voice, "and yet his invention might be in such a shape that he didn't want to exhibit it yet."
"So you think that's the reason, eh?"
"Surely. Don't you?"
"I do not!"
"Well, I think he's trying to—"
"Hush, here he comes!" cautioned Blake, for their friend at that moment came back from a stroll along the forward deck.
But if Joe was really suspicious of the young Spaniard nothing that occurred in the next few days served to develop that suspicion. No reference was made to the odd alarm clock, which was not heard to tick again, nor was it in evidence either in Mr. Alcando's bed, or elsewhere.
"What were you going to say it was that time when I stopped you?" asked Blake of his chum one day.
"I was going to say I thought it might be some sort of an improvement on a moving picture camera," Joe answered. "This may be only a bluff of his—wanting to learn how to take moving pictures. He may know how all along, and only be working on a certain improvement that he can't perfect until he gets just the right conditions. That's what I think."
"Well, you think wrong," declared Blake. "As for him knowing something about the pictures now, why he doesn't even know how to thread the film into the camera."
"Oh, well, maybe I'm wrong," admitted Joe.
Day succeeded day, until, in due time, after their stop at San Juan, where the boys went ashore for a brief visit, the steamer dropped anchor in the excellent harbor of Colon, at the Atlantic end of the great Panama Canal.
A storm was impending as the ship made her way up the harbor, but as the boys and the other passengers looked at the great break-water, constructed to be one of the protections to the Canal, they realized what a stupendous undertaking the work was, and they knew that no storm could affect them, now they were within the Colon harbor.
"Well, we're here at last!" exclaimed Joe, as he looked over the side and noticed many vessels lying about, most of them connected in some manner with the canal construction.
"Yes, and now for some moving pictures—at least within a day or so," went on Blake. "I'm tired of doing nothing. At last we are at Panama!"
"And I shall soon be with you, taking pictures!" cried the Spaniard. "How long do you think it will be before I can take some views myself?" he asked eagerly.
"Oh, within a week or so we'll trust you with a camera," said Blake.
"That is, if you can spare time from your alarm clock invention," added Joe, with a curious glance at his chum.
But if Mr. Alcando felt any suspicions at the words he did not betray himself. He smiled genially, made some of his rapid Latin gestures and exclaimed:
"Oh, the clock. He is safe asleep, and will be while I am here. I work only on moving pictures now!"
In due season Blake, Joe and Mr. Alcando found themselves quartered in the pleasant Washington Hotel, built by the Panama Railroad for the Government, where they found, transported to a Southern clime, most of the luxuries demanded by people of the North.
"Well, this is something like living!" exclaimed Blake as their baggage and moving picture cameras and accessories having been put away, they sat on the veranda and watched breaker after breaker sweep in from the Caribbean Sea.
"The only trouble is we won't be here long enough," complained Joe, as he sipped a cooling lime drink, for the weather was quite warm. "We'll have to leave it and take to the Canal or the jungle, to say nothing of standing up to our knees in dirt taking slides."
"Do you—er—really have to get very close to get pictures of the big slides?" asked Mr. Alcando, rather nervously, Blake thought.
"The nearer the better," Joe replied. "Remember that time, Blake, when we were filming the volcano, and the ground opened right at your feet?"
"I should say I did remember it," said Blake. "Some picture that!"
"Where was this?" asked the Spaniard.
"In earthquake land. There were some times there!"
"Ha! Do not think to scare me!" cried their pupil with a frank laugh. "I said I was going to learn moving pictures and I am—slides or no slides."
"Oh, we're not trying to 'josh' you," declared Blake. "We'll all have to run some chances. But it's all in the day's work, and, after all, it's no more risky than going to war."
"No, I suppose not," laughed their pupil. "Well, when do we start?"
"As soon as we can arrange for the government tug to take us along the Canal," answered Blake. "We'll have to go in one of the United States vessels, as the Canal isn't officially opened yet. We'll have to make some inquiries, and present our letters of introduction. If we get started with the films inside of a week we'll be doing well."
The week they had to wait until their plans were completed was a pleasant one. They lived well at the hotel, and Mr. Alcando met some Spaniards and other persons whom he knew, and to whom he introduced the boys.
Finally the use of the tug was secured, cameras were loaded with the reels of sensitive film, other reels in their light-tight metal boxes were packed for transportation, and shipping cases, so that the exposed reels could be sent to the film company in New York for developing and printing, were taken along.
Not only were Blake and Joe without facilities for developing the films they took, but it is very hard to make negatives in hot countries. If you have ever tried to develop pictures on a hot day, without an ice water bath, you can understand this. And there was just then little ice to be had for such work as photography though some might have been obtained for an emergency. Blake and Joe were only to make the exposures; the developing and printing could better be done in New York.
"Well, we'll start up the canal to-morrow," said Blake to Joe on the evening of their last day in Colon.
"Yes, and I'll be glad of it," remarked Joe. "It's nice enough here at this hotel, but I want to get busy."
"So do I," confessed his chum.
They were to make the entire trip through the Canal as guests of Uncle Sam, the Government having acceded to Mr. Hadley's request, as the completed films were to form part of the official exhibit at the exposition in California later on.
"Whew, but it is hot!" exclaimed Joe, after he and Blake had looked over their possessions, to make sure they were forgetting nothing for their trip next day.
"Yes," agreed Blake. "Let's go out on the balcony for a breath of air."
Their room opened on a small balcony which faced the beach. Mr. Alcando had a room two or three apartments farther along the corridor, and his, too, had a small balcony attached. As Blake and Joe went out on theirs they saw, in the faint light of a crescent and much-clouded moon, two figures on the balcony opening from the Spaniard's room.
"He has company," said Joe, in a low voice.
"Yes," agreed Blake. "I wonder who it is? He said all of his friends had left the hotel. He must have met some new ones."
It was very still that night, the only sounds being the low boom and hiss of the surf as it rushed up the beach. And gradually, to Joe and Blake, came the murmur of voices from the Spaniard's balcony. At first they were low, and it seemed to the boys, though neither expressed the thought, that the conference was a secret one. Then, clearly across the intervening space, came the words:
"Are you sure the machine works right?"
"Perfectly," was the answer, in Mr. Alcando's tones. "I have given it every test."
Then the voices again sunk to a low murmur.
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