Chapter IX. A Vandal's Act
 

"Bless my penknife!" exclaimed Mr. Daman, the next morning, when he had been told of Tom's experience in the night, "things are coming to a pretty pass when our enemies adopt such tactics as this! What can we do, Tom? Hadn't you better let one of us carry the map?"

"Oh, I guess not," answered the young inventor. "They have had one try at me, and found that I wasn't napping. I don't believe they'll try again. No, I'll carry the map."

Tom concealed it in an old wallet, as he thought it was less likely to attract attention there than in the new case he formerly used. Still he did not relax his vigilance, and his sleep for the next few nights was uneasy, as he awakened several times, thinking he felt a hand under his pillow.

At length Ned suggested that one of them sit up part of the night, and keep an eye on Tom's berth. This was agreed to, and they divided the hours of darkness into watches, each one taking a turn at guarding the precious map. But they might have spared themselves the trouble, for no further attempt was made to get it.

"I'd just like to know what Andy Foger's plans are?" said Tom one afternoon, as they were within a few miles of Seattle. "He certainly must have made up his mind quickly, after he saw the map, about going in search of the gold."

"Maybe his father proposed it," suggested Ned. "I heard, in our bank, that Mr. Foger has lost considerable money lately, and he may need more."

"I shouldn't wonder. Well, if they are going to Sitka, Alaska, to assemble their ship, I think they'll have trouble, for supplies are harder to get there than in Seattle. But we'll soon be on our way ourselves, if nothing happens. I hope all the parts of the Red Cloud arrive safely."

They did, as Tom learned a few hours later, when they had taken up their quarters in a Seattle hotel, and he had made inquiries at the railroad office. In the freight depot were all the boxes and crates containing the parts of the big airship, and by comparison with a list he had made, the young inventor found that not a single part was missing.

"We'll soon have her together again," he said to his friends, "and then we'll start for Alaska."

"Where are you going to assemble the airship?" asked Mr. Damon.

"I've got to hire some sort of a big shed," explained Tom. "I heard of one I think I can get. It's out at the fair grounds, and was used some time ago when they had a balloon ascension here. It will be just what I need."

"How long before we can start for the gold valley?" asked the old miner anxiously.

"Oh, in about a week," answered the lad, "that is, if everything goes well."

Tom lost no time in getting to work. He had the different parts of his airship carted to the big shed which he hired. This building was on one edge of the fair grounds, and there was a large, level space which was admirably adapted for trying the big craft, when once more it was put together.

The gold-seekers worked hard, and to such good purpose that in three days most of the ship was together once more, and the Red Cloud looked like herself again. Tom hired a couple of machinists to aid him in assembling the motor, and some of the gas appliances and other apparatus.

"Ha! Bless my rubber shoes!" cried Mr. Damon in delight, as he looked at the big craft "This is like old times, Tom!"

"Yes, indeed," agreed our hero.

"Are you going to give it a preliminary tryout?" asked Ned.

"Oh, yes, I think we can do that to-morrow," replied Tom. "I want to know that everything is in good working shape before I trust the ship on the trip to the frozen north. There are several problems I want to work out, too, for I think I will need a different kind of gas up where the temperature is so low."

"It certainly is cold up here," agreed Ned, for they were now much farther north than when they were in Shopton, and, besides, winter was coming on. It was not the best time of the year to journey into Alaska, but they had no choice. To delay, especially now, might mean that their enemies would get ahead of them.

"We'll be warm in the airship, though; won't we?" asked Abe.

"Oh, yes," answered Tom. "We'll be warm, and have plenty to eat. Which reminds me that I must begin to see about our stock of provisions and other supplies, for we'll soon be on our way."

Work on the airship was hastened to such good advantage the next two days that it was in shape for a trial flight, and, one afternoon, the Red Cloud was wheeled from the shed out into big field, the gas was generated, and the motor started.

There was a little hitch, due to the fact that some of the machine adjustments were wrong, but Tom soon had that remedied and then, with the big propellers whirling around, the airship was sent scudding across the field.

Another moment and it rose like a great eagle, and sailed through the air, while a small crowd that had daily gathered in the hope of seeing a flight, sent up a cheer.

"Does it work all right?" asked Ned anxiously, as he stood in the pilothouse beside his chum.

"As good as it did in Shopton," answered the young inventor, proudly.

"Bless my pocketbook! but that's lucky," exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Then we can soon start, eh?"

"As soon as we are stocked up," replied the lad.

Tom put the airship through a number of "stunts" to test her stability and the rudder control, much to the delight of the gathering throng. Everything was found to work well, and after ascending to a considerable height, to the no small alarm of the old miner, Tom made a quick descent, with the motor shut off. The Red Cloud conducted herself perfectly, and there was nothing else to be desired.

She was sent down to earth and wheeled back into the shed, and not without some difficulty, for the crowd, which was now very large, wanted to get near enough to touch the wonderful craft.

"To-morrow I'll arrange about the supplies and provisions, and we'll stock her up," said Tom to his companions. "Now you folks had better go back to the hotel."

"Aren't you coming?" asked Ned.

I'm going to bunk here in the shed to-night, said the young inventor.

"What for?"

"I can't take any chances now that the Red Cloud is in shape for flying. Some of the Foger crowd might be hanging around, and break in here to damage her."

"But the watchman will be on guard," suggested Ned, for since the hiring of the shed, the young inventor had engaged a man to remain on duty all night.

"I know," answered Tom Swift, "but I'm not going to take any chances. I'll stay here with the watchman."

Ned offered to share the vigil with his chum, and, after some objection Tom consented. The others went back to the hotel, promising to return early in the morning.

Tom slept heavily that night, much heavier than he was in the habit of doing. So did Ned, and their deep breathing as they lay in their staterooms, in the cabin of the airship, told of physical weariness, for they had worked hard to re-assemble the Red Cloud.

The watchman was seated in a chair just inside the big door of the shed, near a small stove in which was a fire to take off the chill of the big place. The guard had slept all day, and there was no excuse for him nodding in the way that he did.

"Queer, how drowsy I feel," he murmured several times. "It's only a little after midnight, too," he added, looking at his watch, "Guess I'll walk around a bit to rouse myself."

He firmly intended to do this, but he thought he would wait just a few minutes more, and he stretched out his legs and got comfortable in the chair.

Three minutes more and the watchman was asleep--sound asleep, while a strange, sweet, sickish odor seemed to fill the atmosphere about him.

There was a noise at the door of the shed, a door in which there were several cracks. A man outside laid aside something that looked like an air pump. He applied one eye to a crack, and looked in on the sleeping watchman.

"He's off," the man murmured. "I thought he'd never get to sleep! Now to get in and dose those two lads! Then I'll have the place to myself!"

There was a clicking noise about the lock on the shed door. It was not a very secure lock at best, and, under the skilful fingers of the midnight visitor, it quickly gave way. The man entered. He gave one look at the slumbering watchman, listened to his heavy breathing, and then went softly toward the airship, which looked to be immense in the comparatively small shed--taking up nearly all the space.

The intruder peered in through the cabin windows where Ned and Tom were asleep. Once more there was in the atmosphere a sickish odor. The man again worked the instrument which was like a small air pump, taking care not to get his own face too near it. Presently he stopped and listened.

"They're doped," he murmured. He arose, and took from his mouth and nose a handkerchief saturated with some chemical that had rendered him immune to the effects of the sleep-producing that he had generated. "Sound asleep," he added. Then, taking out a long, keen knife, the vandal stole toward where the great wings of the Red Cloud stretched out in the dim light like the pinions of a bird. There was a ripping, tearing, rending sound, as the vandal cut and slashed, but Tom, Ned and the watchman slumbered on.