Chapter XX. The Fight
 

Surprise, for the moment, held Tom and the others speechless. To be answered in English, poor and broken as it was, by a native African, was strange enough, but when this same African was found aboard the airship, in the midst of the jungle, at midnight, it almost passed the bounds of possibility.

"Tomba!" mused Tom, wondering where he had heard that name before. "Tomba?"

"Of course!" cried Mr. Anderson, suddenly. "Don't you remember? That's the name of the servant of Mr. and Mrs. Illingway, who escaped and brought news of their capture by the pygmies. That's who Tomba is."

"Yes, but Tomba escaped," objected Mr. Durban. "He went to the white settlements with the news. How comes he here?"

"We'll have to find out," said Tom, simply. "Tomba, are you there?" he called, as he fired other illuminating charge. It disclosed the black man standing up on the deck, and looking at them appealingly.

"Yes, Tomba here," was the answer. "Oh, you be English, Tomba know. Please help Missy and Massy Illingway. Red devils goin' kill 'em pretty much quick."

"Come in!" called Tom, as he turned on the electric lights in the airship. "Come in and tell us all about it. But how did you get here?"

"Maybe there are two Tombas," suggested Ned.

"Bless my safety razor!" cried Mr. Damon "perhaps Ned is right!"

But he wasn't, as they learned when they had questioned the African, who came inside the airship, looking wonderingly around at the many strange things he saw. He was the same Tomba who had escaped the massacre, and had taken news of the capture of his master and mistress to the white settlement. In vain after that he had tried to organize a band to go back with him to the rescue, but the whites in the settlement were too few, and the natives too timid. Then Tomba, with grief in his heart, and not wanting to live while the missionaries whom he had come to care for very much, were captives, he went back into the jungle, determined, if he could not help them, that at least he would share their fate, and endeavor to be of some service to them in their captivity.

After almost unbelievable hardships, he had found the red pygmies, and had allowed himself to be captured by them. They rejoiced greatly in the possession of the big black man, and for some strange reason had not killed him. He was allowed to share the captivity of his master and mistress.

Time went on, and the pygmies did not kill their prisoners. They even treated them with some kindness but were going to sacrifice them at their great annual festival, which was soon to take place. Mr. and Mrs. Illingway, Tomba told our friends in his broken English, had urged him to escape at the first opportunity. They knew if he could get away he would travel through the jungle. They could not, even if they had not been so closely guarded that escape was out of the question.

But Tomba refused to go until Mr. Illingway had said that perhaps he might get word to some white hunters, and so send help to the captives. This Tomba consented to do, and, watching his chance, he did escape. That was several nights ago, and he had been traveling through the jungle ever since. It was by mere accident that he came upon the anchored airship, and his curiosity led him to board her. The rest is known.

"Well, of all queer yarns, this is the limit!" exclaimed Tom, when the black had finished. "What had we better do about it?"

"Get ready to attack the red pygmies at once!" decided Mr. Durban. "If we wait any longer it may be too late!"

"My idea, exactly," declared Mr. Anderson.

"Bless my bowie-knife!" cried Mr. Damon. "It'd like to get a chance at the red imps! Come on, Tom! Let's start at once."

"No, we need daylight to fight by," replied Tom, with a smile at his friend's enthusiasm. "We'll go forward in the morning."

"In the airship?" asked Mr. Damon.

"I think so," answered Tom. "There can be no advantage now in trying to conceal ourselves. We can move upon them from where we are so quickly that they won't have much chance to get away. Besides it will take us too long to make our way through the jungle afoot. For, now that the escape of Tomba must be known, they may kill the captives at once to forestall any rescue."

"Then we'll move forward in the morning," declared Mr. Durban.

They took Tomba with them in the airship the next day, though he prayed fervently before he consented to it. But they needed him to point out the exact location of the pygmies' village, since it was not the one the hunter-scout had been near.

The Black Hawk sailed through the air. On board eager eyes looked down for a first sight of the red imps. Tomba, who was at Tom's side in the steering tower, told him, as best he could, from time to time, how to set the rudders.

"Pretty soon by-em-by be there," said the black man at length. "Pass ober dat hill, den red devils live."

"Well, we'll soon be over that hill," announced Tom grimly. "I guess we'd better get our rifles ready for the battle."

"Are you going to attack them at once?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Well," answered the young inventor, "I don't believe we ought to kill any of them if we can avoid it. I don't like to do such a thing but, perhaps we can't help ourselves. My plan is to take the airship down, close to the hut where the missionaries are confined. Tomba can point it out to us. If we can rescue them without bloodshed, so much the better. But we'll fight if we have to."

Grimly they watched as the airship sailed over the hill. Then suddenly there came into view a collection of mud huts on a vast plain, surrounded by dense jungle on every side. As the travelers looked, they could see little creatures running wildly about. Even without a glass it could be noted that their bodies were covered with a curious growth of thick sandy hair.

"The red pygmies!" cried Tom. "Now for the rescue!"

Eagerly Tomba indicated the hut where his master and mistress were held. Telling his friends to have their weapons in readiness, Tom steered the airship toward the rude shelter whence he hoped to take the missionaries. Down to the ground swiftly shot the Black Hawk. Tom checked her with a quick movement of the deflecting rudder, and she landed gently on the wheels.

"Mr. Illingway! Mrs. Illingway! We have come to rescue you!" yelled the young inventor, as he stepped out on the deck, with his electric rifle in his hand. "Where are you? Can you come out?"

The door of the hut was burst open, and a white man and woman, recognizable as such, even in the rude skins that clothed them, rushed out. Wonder spread over their faces as they saw the great airship. They dropped on their knees.

The next instant a swarm of savage little red men surrounded them, and rudely bore them, strugglingly, back into the hut.

"Come on!" cried Tom, about to leap to the ground. "It's now or never! We must save them!"

Mr. Durban pulled him back, and pointed to a horde of the red-haired savages rushing toward the airship. "They'd tear you to pieces in a minute!" cried the old hunter. "We must fight them from the ship."

There was a curious whistling sound in the air. Mr. Durban looked up.

"Duck, everybody!" he yelled. "They're firing arrows at us! Get under shelter, for they may be poisoned!"

Tom and the others darted into the craft. The arrows rattled on deck in a shower, and hundreds of the red imps were rushing up to give battle. Inside the hut where the missionaries were, it was now quiet. Tom Swift wondered if they still lived.

"Give 'em as good as they send!" cried Mr. Durban. "We will have to fire at them now. Open up with your electric rifle, Tom!"

As he spoke the elephant hunter fired into the midst of the screaming savages. The battle had begun.