Chapter IX. "Beware of the Comet!"
 

"Well, Tom, what are you up to now?"

Ned Newton peered in the window of the shop at his chum, who was busy over a bench.

"This is my latest invention, Ned. Come on in."

"Looks as though you were going to give a magic lantern show. Or is it for some new kinds of moving pictures? Say, do you remember the time we gave a show in the barn, and charged a nickel to come in? You were the clown, and--"

"I was not! You were the clown. I was part of the elephant. The front end, I think."

"Oh. so you were. I'm thinking of another one. But what are you up to now? Is it a big magic lantern?"

Ned came over toward the bench, in front of which Tom stood, fitting together sheets of heavy brass in the form of a big square box. In one side there was a circular opening, and there were various wheels and levers on the different sides and on top. The interior contained parobolic curved mirrors.

"It's a sort of a lantern, and I hope it's going to do some magic work," explained Tom with a smile. "But it isn't the kind of magic lantern you mean. It won't throw pictures on a screen, but it may show some surprising pictures to us--that is if you come along, and I think you will."

"Talking riddles; eh?" laughed Ned. "What's the answer?"

"Smugglers."

"I thought you were talking about a lantern."

"So I am, and it's the lantern that's going to show up the smugglers, so you can call it a smuggler's magic lantern if you like."

"Then you're going after them?"

This conversation took place several days after the raid on the Foger house, and after Tom's accidental discovery of how to make a new kind of searchlight. In the meantime he had not seen Ned, who had been away on a visit.

"Yes, I've made up my mind to help Uncle Sam," spoke Tom, "and this is one of the things I'll need in my work. It's going to be the most powerful searchlight ever made--that is, I never heard of any portable electric lights that will beat it."

"What do you mean, Tom?"

"I mean that I'm inventing a new kind of searchlight, Ned. One that I can carry with me on my new noiseless airship, and one that will give a beam of light that will be visible for several miles, and which will make objects in its focus as plain as if viewed by daylight."

"And it's to show up the smugglers?"

"That's what. That is it will if we can get on the track of them."

"But what did you mean when you said it would be the most powerful portable light ever made."

"Just what I said. I've got to carry this searchlight on an airship with me, and, in consequence, it can't be very heavy. Of course there are stationary searchlights, such lights as are in lighthouses, that could beat mine all to pieces for candle power, and for long distance visibility. But they are the only ones."

"That's the way to do things, Tom! Say, I'm going with you all right after those smugglers. But where are some of those powerful stationary searchlights you speak of?"

"Oh, there are lots of them. One was in the Eiffel Tower, during the Paris Exposition. I didn't see that, but I have read about it. Another is in one of the twin lighthouses at the High-lands, on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, just above Asbury Park. That light is of ninety-five million candle power, and the lighthouse keeper there told me it was visible, on a clear night, as far as the New Haven, Connecticut, lighthouse, a distance of fifty miles."

"Fifty miles! That's some light!" gasped Ned.

"Well, you must remember that the Highlands light is up on a very high hill, and the tower is also high, so there is quite an elevation, and then think of ninety-five million candle power--think of it!"

"I can't!" cried Ned. "It gives me a head-ache."

"Well, of course I'm not going to try to beat that," went on Tom with a laugh, "but I am going to have a very powerful light." And he then related how he had accidently discovered a new way to connect the wires, so as to get, from a dynamo and a storage battery a much stronger, and different, current than usual.

"I'm making the searchlight now," Tom continued, "and soon I'll be ready to put in the lens, and the carbons."

"And then what?"

"Then I'm going to attach it to my noiseless airship, and we'll have a night flight. It may work, and it may not. If it does, I think we'll have some astonishing results."

"I think we will, Tom. Can I do anything to help you?"

"Yes, file some of the rough edges off these sheets of brass, if you will. There's an old pair of gloves to put on to protect your hands, otherwise you'll be almost sure to cut 'em, when the file slips. That brass is extra hard."

The two boys were soon working away, and were busy over the big lantern when Mr. Whitford came along. Koku was, as usual, on guard at the outer door of the shop, but he knew the custom officer, and at once admitted him.

"Well, Tom, how you coming on?" he asked.

"Pretty good. I think I've got just what I want. A powerful light for night work."

"That's good. You'll need it. They've got so they only smuggle the goods over in the night now. How soon do you think you'll be able to get on the border for Uncle Sam?"

"Why, is there any great rush?" asked Tom, as he noticed a look of annoyance pass over the agent's face.

"Yes, the smugglers have been hitting us pretty hard lately. My superiors are after me to do something, but I can't seem to do it. My men are working hard, but we can't catch the rascals."

"You see, Tom, they've stopped, temporarily, bringing goods over the St. Lawrence. They're working now in the neighborhood of Huntington, Canada, and the dividing line between the British possessions and New York State, runs along solid ground there. It's a wild and desolate part of country, too, and I haven't many men up there."

"Don't the Canadian custom officers help?" asked Ned.

"Well, they haven't been of any aid to us so far," was the answer. "No doubt they are trying, but it's hard to get an airship at night when you're on the ground, and can't even see it."

"How did they come to use airships?" asked Tom.

"Well, it was because we were too sharp after them when they tried to run things across the line afoot, or by wagons," replied the agent. "You must know that in every principal city, at or near the border line, there is a custom house. Goods brought from Canada to the United States must pass through there and pay a duty."

"Of course if lawless people try to evade the duty they don't go near the custom house. But there are inspectors stationed at the principal roads leading from the Dominion into Uncle Sam's territory, and they are always on the lookout. They patrol the line, sometimes through a dense wilderness, and again over a desolate plain, always on the watch. If they see persons crossing the line they stop them and examine what they have. If there is nothing dutiable they are allowed to pass. If they have goods on which there is a tax, they either have to pay or surrender the goods."

"But don't the smugglers slip over in spite of all the precautions?" asked Ned. "Say at some lonely ravine, or stretch of woods?"

"I suppose they do, occasionally," replied Mr. Whitford. "Yet the fact that they never can tell when one of the inspectors or deputies is coming along, acts as a stop. Yon see the border line is divided up into stretches of different lengths. A certain man, or men, are held responsible for each division. They must see that no smugglers pass. That makes them on the alert."

"Why, take it out west, I have a friend who told me that he often travels hundreds of miles on horseback, with pack ponies carrying his camping outfit, patroling the border on the lookout for smugglers."

"In fact Uncle Sam has made it so hard for the ordinary smuggler to do business on foot or by wagon, that these fellows have taken to airships. And it is practically impossible for an inspector patroling the border to be on the lookout for the craft of the air. Even if they saw them, what could they do? It would be out of the question to stop them. That's why we need some one with a proper machine who can chase after them, who can sail through the air, and give them a fight in the clouds if they have to."

"Our custom houses on the ground, and our inspectors on horse back, traveling along the border, can't meet the issue. We're depending on you, Tom Swift, and I hope you don't disappoint us."

"Well," spoke Tom, when Mr. Whitford had finished. "I'll do my best for you. It won't take very long to complete my searchlight, and then I'll give it a trial. My airship is ready for service, and once I find we're all right I'll start for the border."

"Good! And I hope you'll catch the rascals!" fervently exclaimed the custom official. "Well, Tom, I'm leaving it all to you. Here are some reports from my deputies. I'll leave them with you, and you can look them over, and map out a campaign. When you are ready to start I'll see you again, and give you any last news I have. I'll also arrange so that you can communicate with me, or some of my men."

"Have you given up all suspicion of the Fogers?" asked the young inventor.

"Yes. But I still think Shopton is somehow involved in the custom violations. I'm going to put one of my best men on the ground here, and go to the border myself."

"Well, I'll be ready to start in a few days," said Tom, as the government agent departed.

For the next week our hero and his chum were busy completing work on the great searchlight, and in attaching it to the airship. Koku helped them, but little of the plans, or of the use to which the big lantern was to be put, were made known to him, for Koku liked to talk, and Tom did not want his project to become known.

"Well, we'll give her a trial to-night," said Tom one afternoon, following a day of hard work. "We'll go up, and flash the light down."

"Who's going?"

"Just us two. You can manage the ship, and I'll look after the light."

So it was arranged, and after supper Tom and his chum, having told Mr. Swift were they were going, slipped out to the airship shed, and soon were ready to make an ascent. The big lantern was fastened to a shaft that extended above the main cabin. The shaft was hollow and through it came the wires that carried the current. Tom, from the cabin below, could move the lantern in any direction, and focus it on any spot he pleased. By means of a toggle joint, combined with what are known as "lazy-tongs," the lantern could be projected over the side of the aircraft and be made to gleam on the earth, directly below the ship.

For his new enterprise Tom used the Falcon in which he had gone to Siberia after the platinum. The new noiseless motor had been installed in this craft.

"All ready, Ned?" asked Tom after an inspection of the searchlight.

"All ready, as far as I'm concerned, Tom."

"Then let her go!"

Like a bird of the night, the great aeroplane shot into the air, and, with scarcely a sound that could be heard ten feet away, she moved forward at great speed.

"What are you going to do first?" asked Ned.

"Fly around a bit, and then come back over my house. I'm going to try the lantern on that first, and see what I can make out from a couple of miles up in the air."

Up and up went the Falcon, silently and powerfully, until the barograph registered nearly fourteen thousand feet.

"This is high enough." spoke Tom.

He shifted a lever that brought the searchlight into focus on Shopton, which lay below them. Then, turning on the current, a powerful beam of light gleamed out amid the blackness.

"Jove! That's great!" cried Ned. "It's like a shaft of daylight!"

"That's what I intended it to be!" cried Tom in delight.

With another shifting of the lever he brought the light around so that it began to pick up different buildings in the town.

"There's the church!" cried Ned. "It's as plain as day, in that gleam."

"And there's the railroad depot," added Tom.

"And Andy Foger's house!"

"Yes, and there's my house!" exclaimed Tom a moment later, as the beam rested on his residence and shops. "Say, it's plainer than I thought it would be. Hold me here a minute, Ned."

Ned shut off the power from the propellers, and the airship was stationary. Tom took a pair of binoculars, and looked through them at his home in the focus of light.

"I can count the bricks in the chimney!" he cried in eagerness at the success of his great searchlight. "It's even better than I thought it was! Let's go down, Ned."

Slowly the airship sank. Tom played his light all about, picking up building after building, and one familiar spot after another. Finally he brought the beam on his own residence again, when not far above it.

Suddenly there arose a weird cry. Tom and Ned knew at once that it was Eradicate.

"A comet! A comet!" yelled the colored man. "De end ob de world am comin'! Run, chillens, run! Beware ob de comet!"

"Eradicate's afraid!" cried Tom with a laugh.

"Oh good mistah comet! Doan't take me!" went on the colored man. "I ain't neber done nuffin', an' mah mule Boomerang ain't needer. But ef yo' has t' take somebody, take Boomerang!"

"Keep quiet, Rad! It's all right!" cried Tom. But the colored man continued to shout in fear.

Then, as the two boys looked on, and as the airship came nearer to the earth, Ned, who was looking down amid the great illumination, called to Tom:

"Look at Koku!"

Tom glanced over, and saw his giant servant, with fear depicted on his face, running away as fast as he could. Evidently Eradicate's warning had frightened him.

"Say, he can run!" cried Ned. "Look at him leg it!"

"Yes, and he may run away, never to come back," exclaimed Tom. "I don't want to lose him, he's too valuable. I know what happened once when he got frightened. He was away for a week before I could locate him, and he hid in the swamp. I'm not going to have that happen again."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to chase after him in the airship. It will be a good test for chasing the smugglers. Put me after him, Ned, and I'll play the searchlight on him so we can't lose him!"