Chapter XXII. A Night Attack
 

"Well, what's to be done?"

Tom Swift asked that question.

"Bless my percussion cap! They certainly are the very worst imps for fighting that I ever heard of," commented Mr. Damon helplessly.

"Is the gas bag much punctured?" asked Ned Newton.

"Wait a minute," resumed the young inventor, as he pulled the speed lever a trifle farther over, thereby sending the craft forward more swiftly, "I think my question ought to be answered first. What's to be done? Are we going to run away, and leave that man and woman to their fate?"

"Of course not!" declared Mr. Durban stoutly, "but we couldn't stay there, and have them destroy the airship."

"No, that's so," admitted Tom, "if we lost the airship it would be all up with us and our chances of rescuing the missionaries. But what can we do? I hate to retreat!"

"But what else is there left for us?" demanded Ned.

"Nothing, of course. But we've got to plan to get the best of those red pygmies. We can't go back in the airship, and give them open battle. There are too many of them, and, by Jove! I believe more are coming every minute!"

Tom and the others looked down. From all sides of the plain, hastening toward the village of mud huts, from which our friends were retreating, could be seen swarms of the small but fierce savages. They were coming from the jungle, and were armed with war clubs, bows and arrows and the small but formidable blowguns.

"Where are they coming from?" asked Mr. Damon.

"From the surrounding tribes," explained Mr. Durban. "They have been summoned to do battle against us."

"But how did the ones we fought get word to the others so soon?" Ned demanded.

"Oh, they have ways of signaling," explained Mr. Anderson. "They can make the notes of some of their hollow-tree drums carry a long distance, and then they are very swift runners, and can penetrate into the jungle along paths that a white man would hardly see. They also use the smoke column as a signal, as our own American Indians used to do. Oh, they can summon all their tribesmen to the fight, and they probably will. Likely the sound of our guns attracted the imps, though if we all had electric rifles like Tom's they wouldn't make any noise."

"Well, my rifle didn't appear to do so very much good this tune," observed the young inventor, as he stopped the forward motion of the ship now, and let it hover over the plain in sight of the village, the gas bag serving to sustain the craft, and there was little wind to cause it to drift. "Those fellows didn't seem to mind being hurt and killed any more than if mosquitoes were biting them."

"The trouble is we need a whole army, armed with electric rifles to make a successful attack," said Mr. Durban. "There are swarms of them there now, and more coming every minute. I do hope Mr. and Mrs. Illingway are alive yet."

"Yes," added Mr. Anderson solemnly, "we must hope for the best. But, like Tom Swift, I ask, what's to be done?"

"Bless my thinking cap!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "It seems to me if we can't fight them openly in the daytime, there's only one other thing to do."

"What's that?" asked Tom. "Go away? I'll not do it!"

"No, not go away," exclaimed Mr. Damon, "but make a night attack. We ought to be able to do something then, and with your illuminating rifle, Tom, we'd have an advantage! What do you say?"

"I say it's the very thing!" declared Tom, with sudden enthusiasm. "We'll attack them to-night, when they're off their guard, and we'll see if we can't get the missionaries out of that hut. And to better fool the savages, we'll just disappear now, and make 'em believe we've flown away."

"Then the missionaries will think we're deserting them," objected Mr. Anderson.

But there was no help for it, and so Tom once more turned on the power and the craft sailed away.

Tomba, the faithful black, begged to be allowed to go down, and tell his master and mistress that help would soon be at hand again, even though it looked like a retreat on the part of the rescuers, but this could not he permitted.

"They'd tear you in pieces as soon as you got among those red imps," said Tom. "You stay here, Tomba, and you can help us to-night."

"A'right, me glad help lick red fellows," said the black, with as cheerful a grin as he could summon.

The Black Hawk circled around, with Tom and the others looking for a good place to land. They were out of sight of the village now but did not doubt but that they were observed by the keen eyes of the little men.

"We want to pick out a place where they won't come upon us as we descend," declared Tom. "We've got to mend some leaks in the gas bag, for, while they are not serious, if we get any more punctures they may become so. So we've got to pick out a good place to go down."

Finally, by means of powerful glasses, a desolate part of the jungle was selected. No files of the red dwarfs, coming from their scattered villages to join their tribesmen, had been noted in the vicinity picked out, and it was hoped that it would answer. Slowly the airship settled to earth, coming to rest in a thick grove of trees, where there was an opening just large enough to allow the Black Hawk to enter.

Our friends were soon busy repairing the leaks in the bag, while Mr. Damon got a meal ready. As they ate they talked over plans for the night attack.

It was decided to wait until it was about two o'clock in the morning, as at that hour the dwarfs were most generally asleep, Tomba said. They always stayed up quite late, sitting around camp- fires, and eating the meat which the hunters brought in each day. But their carousings generally ended at midnight, the black said, and then they fell into a heavy sleep. They did not post guards, but since they knew of the presence of the white men in the airship, they might do it this time.

"Well, we've got to take our chance," decided Tom. "We'll start off from here about one o'clock, and I'll send the ship slowly along. We'll get right over the hut where the captives are, if possible, and then descend. I'll manage the ship, and one of you can work the electric rifle if they attack us. We'll make a dash, get Mr. and Mrs. Illingway from the hut, and make a quick get-away."

It sounded good, and they were impatient to put it into operation. That afternoon Tom and his friends went carefully over every inch of their craft, to repair it and have it in perfect working order. Guns were cleaned, and plenty of ammunition laid out. Then, shortly after one o'clock in the morning the ship was sent up, and with the searchlight ready to be turned on instantly, and with his electric rifle near at hand, Tom Swift guided his craft on to the attack. Soon they could see the glow of dying fires in the dwarfs' village, but no sound came from the sleeping hordes of red imps.