Chapter X. Off in the Airship
 

As Tom Swift hurried down the companionway he again felt the ship careen as the whale struck it a powerful blow, and he was almost knocked off his feet. But he kept on.

Below he found some frightened men and women, a number of whom were adjusting life preservers about them, under the impression that the ship had struck a rock and was going down. They had not been up on deck, and did not know of the battle between the killer and the whale, nor what followed.

"Oh, I know we're sinking!" cried one timid woman. "What has happened?" she appealed to Tom.

"It will be all right in a little while," he assured her.

"But what is it? I want to know. Have we had a collision."

"Yes, with a whale," replied Tom, as he grabbed up something from his stateroom, and again rushed up on deck. As he reached it the whale came on once more, and struck the ship another terrific blow. Then the monster sank and could be seen swimming back, just under the surface of the water, getting ready to renew the attack.

"He's going to ram us again!" cried Mr. Damon. "Bless my machine oil! Why doesn't the captain do something?"

At that moment the commander cried from the bridge:

"Send a man below, Mr. Laster, to see if we are making any water. Then tell half a dozen of the sailors to get out the rifles, and see if they can't kill the beast. He'll put us in Davy Jones's locker if he keeps this up! Lively now, men!"

The first mate, Mr. Laster, called out the order. A sailor went below to see if the ship was leaking much, and the captain rang for full speed ahead. But the Soudalar was slow in getting under way again, and, even at top speed she was no match for the whale, which was again rushing toward the vessel.

"Quick with those rifles!" cried the captain. "Fire a volley into the beast!"

"There's no need!" suddenly called Mr. Damon, who had caught sight of Tom Swift, and the object which the lad carried.

"No need?" demanded the commander. "Why, has the whale sunk, or made off?"

"No," answered the eccentric man, "the whale is still coming on, but Tom Swift will fix him. Get there, Tom, and let him have a good one!"

"What sort of a gun is that?" demanded the commander as the young inventor took his place at the rail, which was now almost deserted.

Tom did not answer. Bracing himself against the rolling and heaving of the vessel, which was now under about half speed, Tom aimed his electric rifle at the oncoming leviathan. He looked at the automatic gage, noted the distance and waiting a moment until the crest of a wave in front of the whale had subsided, he pressed the button.

If those watching him expected to hear a loud report, and see a flash of flame, they were disappointed. There was absolutely no sound, but what happened to the whale was most surprising.

The great animal stopped short amid a swirl of foam, and the next instant it seemed to disintegrate. It went all to pieces, just as had the dummy figure which Tom on one occasion fired at with his rifle and as had the big packing-cases. The whale appeared to dissolve, as does a lump of sugar in a cup of hot tea, and, five seconds after Tom Swift had fired his electric gun, there was not a sign of the monster save a little blood on the calm sea.

"What--what happened?" asked the captain in bewilderment. "Is--is that monster gone?"

"Completely gone!" cried Mr. Damon. "Bless my powder horn, Tom, but I knew you could do it!"

"Is that a new kind of whale gun, firing an explosive bullet?" inquired the commander, as he came down off the bridge and shook hands with Tom. "If it is, I'd like to buy one. We may be rammed again by another whale."

"This is my new, electric rifle," explained the young inventor modestly, "and it fires wireless charges of electricity instead of bullets. I'm sorry I can't let you have it, as it's the only one I have. But I guess no more whales will ram us. That one was evidently crazed by the attack of the killer, and doubtless took us for another of its enemies."

Sailors and passengers crowded around Tom, eager to shake his hand, and to hear about the gun. Many declared that he had saved the ship.

This was hardly true, for the whale could not have kept up its attacks much longer. Still he might have done serious damage, by causing a leak, and, while the Soudalar was a stanch craft, with many water-tight compartments, still no captain likes to be a week from land with a bad leak, especially if a storm comes up. Then, too, there was the danger of a panic among the passengers, had the attacks been kept up, so, though Tom wanted to make light of his feat, the others would not let him.

"You're entitled to the thanks of all on board," declared Captain Wendon, "and I'll see that the owners hear of what you did. Well, I guess we can go on, now. I'll not stop again to see a fight between a killer and a whale."

The steamer resumed her way at full speed, and the sailor, who had gone below, came up to report that there was only a slight leak, which need not cause any uneasiness.

Little was talked of for the next few days but the killing of the whale, and Tom had to give several exhibitions of his electric rifle, and explain its workings. Then, too, the story of his expedition became known, and also the object of Mr. Anderson's quest, and Tom's offer of aid to help rescue the missionaries, so that, altogether, our hero was made much of during the remainder of the voyage.

"Well, if your gun will do that to a whale, what will it do to an elephant?" asked Mr. Durban one morning, when they were within a day's steaming of their port. "I'm afraid it's almost too strong, Tom. It will leave nothing--not even the tusks to pick up."

"Oh, I can regulate the power," declared the lad. "I used full force on the whale, just to see what it would do. It was the first tine I'd tried it on anything alive. I can so regulate the charge that it will kill even an elephant, and leave scarcely a mark on the beast."

"I'd like to see it done," remarked the old. hunter.

"I'll show you, if we sight any sharks," promised Tom. He was able to keep his word for that afternoon a school of the ugly fish followed the steamer for the sake of the food scraps thrown overboard. Tom took his position in the stern, and gave an exhibition of shooting with his electric gun that satisfied even Mr. Durban, exacting as he was.

For the lad, by using his heaviest charges, destroyed the largest sharks so that they seemed to instantly disappear in the water, and from that he toned down the current until he could kill some of the monsters so easily and quickly that they seemed to float motionless on the surface, yet there was no life left in them once the electric charge touched them.

"We'll use the light charges when we're killing elephants for their tusks," said Tom, "and the heavy ones when we're in danger from a rush of the beasts."

He little knew how soon he would have to put his plan into effect.

They arrived safely at Majumba, the African coast city, and for two days Tom was kept busy superintending the unloading of the parts of his airship. But it was safely taken ashore, and he and his friends hired a disused warehouse in which to work at reassembling the Black Hawk.

Tom had everything down to a system, and, in less than a week the aircraft was once more ready to be sent aloft. It was given a try- out, much to the astonishment of the natives, and worked perfectly. Then Tom and his friends busied themselves laying in a stock of provisions and stores for the trip into the interior.

They made inquiries about the chances of getting ivory and were told that they were good if they went far enough into the jungle and forests, for the big beasts had penetrated farther and farther inland.

They also tried to get some news regarding the captive missionaries, but were unsuccessful nor could they learn what had become of Tomba, who had brought the dire news to civilization.

"It's too soon to hope for anything yet," said Mr. Anderson. "Wait until we get near the country of the red pygmies."

"And then it may be too late," said Tom in a low voice.

It was two weeks after their arrival in Majumba that Tom announced that all was in readiness. The airship was in perfect working order, it was well stocked with food, arms, articles and trinkets with which to trade among the natives, spare parts for the machinery, special tools and a good supply of the chemicals needed to manufacture the lifting gas.

Of course Tom did not leave behind his electric weapon and Mr. Durban and the others took plenty of ammunition for the ordinary rifles which they carried.

One morning, after cabling to his father that they were about to start, Tom gave a last careful look to his airship, tested the motor and dynamos, took a hasty survey of the storeroom, to see that nothing had been forgotten, and gave the word to get aboard.

They took their places in the cabin. Outside a crowd of natives, and white traders of many nationalities had gathered. Tom pulled the starting lever. The Black Hawk shot across a specially prepared starting ground, and, attaining sufficient momentum, suddenly arose into the air.

There was a cheer from the watching crowd, and several superstitious blacks, who saw the airship for the first time, ran away in terror.

Up into the blue atmosphere Tom took his craft. He looked down on the city over which he was flying. Then he pointed the prow of the Black Hawk toward the heart of the dark continent.

"Off for the interior!" he murmured. "I wonder if we'll ever get out again?"

No one could answer. They had to take their chances with the dangers and terrors of elephant land, and with the red pygmies. Yet Tom Swift was not afraid.