Chapter XXIII. On the Trail
 

Such a crowd had quickly gathered about Tom's airship that it was impossible to start it. Men and boys, and even some girls and women, coming from no one knew where, stood about the machine, making wondering remarks about it.

"Stand back, if you please!" cried Tom, good-naturedly. "We've got to get after the fellow in the auto."

"You'll have hard work catching him, friend, in that rig," remarked a man. "He was fracturing all the speed laws ever passed. I reckon he was going nigh onto sixty miles an hour."

"We can make a hundred," spoke Ned, quietly.

"A hundred! Get out!" cried the man. "Nothing can go as fast as that!"

"We'll show you, if we once get started," said Tom. "I guess we'll have to get one of these fellows to twirl the propellers for us, Ned," he added. "I didn't think, or I'd have brought the self- starting machine," for this one of Tom's had to be started by someone turning over the propellers, once or twice, to enable the motor to begin to speed. On some of his aircraft the young inventor had attached a starter, something like the ones on the newest autos.

"What are you going to do?" asked Ned, as Tom looked to the priming of the cylinders.

"I'm going to get on the trail of Peters," he said. "He's at the bottom of the whole business; and it's a surprise to me. I'm going to trail him right down to the ground now, and make him give up Mr. Damon and his fortune,"

"But you don't know where he is, Tom."

"I'll find out. He isn't such an easy man to miss--he's too conspicuous. Besides, if he's just left in his auto we may catch him before he gets to Shopton."

"Do you think he's going there?"

"I think so. And I think, Ned, that he's become suspicious and will light out. Something must have happened, while he was telephoning, and he got frightened, as big a bluff as he is. But we'll get him. Come on! Will you turn over the propellers, please? I'll show you how to do it," Tom went on to a big, strong man standing close to the blades.

"Sure I'll do it," was the answer. "I was a helper once at an airship meet, and I know how."

"Get back out of the way in time," the young inventor warned him. "They start very suddenly, sometimes."

"All right, friend, I'll watch out," was the reply, and with Tom and Ned in their seats, the former at the steering wheel, the craft of the air was soon throbbing and trembling under the first turn, for the cylinders were still warm from the run from Mrs. Damon's house.

The telephone was in an outlying section of Waterford--a section devoted in the main to shops and factories, and the homes of those employed in various lines of manufacture. Peters had chosen his place well, for there were many roads leading to and from this section, and he could easily make his escape.

"But we'll get after him," thought Tom, grimly, as he let the airship run down the straight road a short distance on the bicycle wheels, to give it momentum enough so that it would rise.

Then, with the tilting of the elevation rudder, the craft rose gracefully, amid admiring cheers from the crowd. Tom did not go up very far, as he wanted to hover near the ground, to pick out the speeding auto containing Peters.

But this time luck was not with Tom. He and Ned did sight a number of cars speeding along the highway toward Shopton, but when they got near enough to observe the occupants they were disappointed not to behold the man they sought. Tom circled about for some time, but it was of no use, and then he headed his craft back toward Waterford.

"Where are you going?" asked Ned, yelling the words into the ear of his chum.

"Back to Mrs. Damon's," answered Tom, in equally loud tones.

It was impossible to talk above the roaring and throbbing of the motor, so the two lads kept silent until the airship had landed near Mrs. Damon's home.

"I want to see if Mrs. Damon is all right," Tom explained, as he jumped from the still moving machine. "Then we'll go to Shopton, and cause Peters's arrest. I can make a charge against him now, and the evidence of the photo telephone will convict him, I'm sure. And I also want to see if Mrs. Damon has had any other word."

She had not, however, though she was more nervous and worried than ever.

"Oh, Tom, what shall I do?" she exclaimed. "I am so frightened! What do you suppose they will do to Mr. Damon?"

"Nothing at all!" Tom assured her. "He will be all right. I think matters are coming to a crisis now, and very likely he'll be with you inside of twenty-four hours. The game is up, and I guess Peters knows it. I'm going to have him arrested at once."

"Shall I send those land papers, Tom?"

"Indeed you must not! But I'll talk to you about that later. Just put away that phonograph record of Peters's talk. I'll take along the photo telephone negative, and have some prints made--or, I guess, since we're going in the airship, that I'd better leave it here for the present. We'll use it as evidence against Peters. Come on, Ned."

"Where to now?"

"Peters's house. He's probably there, arranging to cover up his tracks when he lights out."

But Shallock Peters did better than merely cover up his tracks. He covered himself up, so to speak. For when Ned and Tom, after a quick flight in the airship, reached his house, the promoter had left, and the servants, who were quite excited, did not know where he had gone.

"He just packed up a few clothes and ran out," said one of the maids. "He didn't say anything about our wages, either, and he owes me over a month."

"Me too," said another.

"Well, if he doesn't pay me some of my back wages soon, I'll sue him!" declared the gardener. "He owes me more than three months, but he kept putting me off."

And, so it seemed, Peters had done with several of his employes. When the promoter came to Shopton he had taken an elaborate house and engaged a staff of servants. Peters was not married, but he gave a number of entertainments to which the wealthy men of Shopton and their wives came. Later it was found that the bills for these had never been paid. In short, Peters was a "bluff" in more ways than one.

Tom told enough of his story to the servants to get them on his side. Indeed, now that their employer had gone, and under such queer circumstances, they had no sympathy for him. They were only concerned about their own money, and Tom was given admittance to the house.

Tom made a casual search, hoping to find some clue to the whereabouts of Mr. Damon, or to get some papers that would save his fortune. But the search was unsuccessful.

There was a safe in the room Peters used for an office, but when Tom got there the strong box was open, and only some worthless documents remained.

"He smelled a rat, all right," said Tom, grimly. "After he telephoned to Mrs. Damon something happened that gave him an intimation that someone was after him. So he got away as soon as he could."

"But what are you going to do about it, Tom?"

"Get right after him. He can't have gotten very far. I want him and I want Boylan. We're getting close to the end of the trail, Ned."

"Yes, but we haven't found Mr. Damon yet, and his fortune seems to have vanished."

"Well, we'll do the best we can," said Tom, grimly. "Now I'm going to get a warrant for the arrest of Peters, and one for Boylan, and I'm going to get myself appointed a special officer with power to serve them. We've got our work cut out for us, Ned."

"Well, I'm with you to the end."

"I know you are!" cried Tom.