Chapter XXIV. The Lonely House
 

The young inventor had little difficulty in getting the warrants he sought. In the case of Boylan, who seemed to be Peters's right- hand man, when it came to criminal work, Tom made a charge of unlawfully taking the airship. This would be enough to hold the man on until other evidence could be obtained against him.

As for Peters, he was accused of taking certain valuable bonds and stocks belonging to Mr. Damon. Mrs. Damon gave the necessary evidence in this case, and the authorities were told that later, when Peters should have been arrested, other evidence so skillfully gotten by Tom's photo telephone, would be brought before the court.

"It's a new way of convicting a man--by a photo telephone--but I guess it's a good one," said the judge who signed the warrants.

"Well, now that we've got what we want, the next thing to do is to get the men--Peters, and the others," said Tom, as he and Ned sat in Tom's library after several hours of strenuous work.

"How are you going to start?" the young banker wanted to know. "It seems a strange thing that a man like Mr. Damon could be made away with, and kept in hiding so long without something being heard of him. I'm afraid, Tom, that something must have happened to him."

"I think so too, Ned. Nothing serious, though," Tom added, quickly, as he saw the look of alarm on his chum's face. "I think Mr. Damon at first went away of his own accord."

"Of his own accord?"

"Yes. I think Peters induced him to go with him, on the pretense that he could recover his fortune. After getting Mr. Damon in their power they kept him, probably to get the rest of his fortune away from him."

"But you stopped that, Tom," said Ned, proud of his chum's abilities.

"Well, I hope so," admitted the young inventor. "But I've still got plenty to do."

"Have you a starting point?"

"For one thing," Tom answered, "I'm going to have Mrs. Damon mail a fake package to the address Peters gave. If he, or any of his men, call for it, we'll have a detective on the watch, and arrest them."

"Good!"

"Of course it may not work," spoke Tom; "but it's something to try, and we can't miss any chances."

Accordingly, the next day, a package containing only blank paper, made up to represent the documents demanded by Peters as the price of releasing Mr. Damon, was mailed to the address Mrs. Damon had received over the wire from the rascally promoter. Then a private detective was engaged to be on the watch, to take into custody whoever called for the bundle. Tom, though, had not much hope of anything coming of this, as it was evident that Peters had taken the alarm, and left.

"And now," said Tom, when he had safely put away the wax record, containing the incriminating talk of Peters, and had printed several photographs, so wonderfully taken over the wire, "now to get on the trail again."

It was not an easy one to follow. Tom began at the deserted home of the alleged financier. The establishment was broken up, for many tradesmen came with bills that had not been paid, and some of them levied on what little personal property there was to satisfy their claims. The servants left, sorrowful enough over their missing wages. The place was closed up under the sheriff's orders.

But of Peters and his men not a trace could be found. Tom and Ned traveled all over the surrounding country, looking for clues, but in vain. They made several trips in the airship, but finally decided that an automobile was more practical for their work, and kept to that.

They did find some traces of Peters. As Tom had said, the man was too prominent not to be noticed. He might have disguised himself, though it seemed that the promoter was a proud man, and liked to be seen in flashy clothes, a silk hat, and with a buttonhole bouquet.

This made it easy to get the first trace of him. He had been seen to take a train at the Shopton station, though he had not bought a ticket. The promoter had paid his fare to Branchford, a junction point, but there all trace of him was lost. It was not even certain that he went there.

"He may have done that to throw us off," said Tom. "Just because he paid his way to Branchford, doesn't say he went there. He may have gotten off at the next station beyond Shopton."

"Do you think he's still lingering around here?" asked Ned.

"I shouldn't be surprised," was Tom's answer. "He knows that there is still some of the Damon property left, and he is probably hungry for that. We'll get him yet, Ned."

But at the end of several days Tom's hopes did not seem in a fair way to be realized. He and Ned followed one useless clue after another. All the trails seemed blind ones. But Tom never gave up.

He was devoting all his time now to the finding of his friend Mr. Damon, and to the recovery of his fortune. In fact the latter was not so important to Tom as was the former. For Mrs. Damon was on the verge of a nervous collapse on account of the absence of her husband.

"If I could only have some word from him, Tom!" she cried, helplessly.

To Tom the matter was very puzzling. It seemed utterly impossible that Mr. Damon could be kept so close a prisoner that he could not manage to get some word to his friends. It was not as if he was a child. He was a man of more than ordinary abilities. Surely he might find a way to outwit his enemies.

But the days passed, and no word came. A number of detectives had been employed, but they were no more successful than Tom. The latter had given up his inventive work, for the time being, to devote all his time to the solution of the mystery.

Tom and Ned had been away from Shopton for three days, following the most promising clue they had yet received. But it had failed at the end, and one afternoon they found themselves in a small town, about a hundred miles from Shopton. They had been motoring.

"I think I'll call up the house," said Tom. "Dad may have received some news, or Mrs. Damon may have sent him some word. I'll get my father on the wire."

Connection to Tom's house was soon made, and Ned, who was listening to his chum's remarks, was startled to hear him cry out:

"What's that you say? My airship taken again? When did it happen? Yes, I'm listening. Go on, Father!"

Then followed a silence while Tom listened, breaking in now and then with an excited remark, Suddenly he called:

"Good-by, Dad! I'm coming right home!"

Tom hung up the receiver with a bang, and turned to his chum.

"What do you think!" he cried. "The Eagle was taken again last night! The same way as before. Nobody got a glimpse of the thieves, though. Dad has been trying to get in communication with me ever since. I'm glad I called up. Now we'll get right back to Shopton, and see what we can do. This is the limit! Peters and his crowd will be kidnapping us, next."

"That's right," agreed Ned.

He and Tom were soon off again, speeding in the auto toward Shopton. But the roads were bad, after a heavy rain, and they did not make fast time.

The coming of dusk found them with more than thirty miles to go. They were in an almost deserted section of the country when suddenly, as they were running slowly up a hill, there was a sudden crack, the auto gave a lurch to one side of the roadway and then settled heavily. Tom clapped on both brakes quickly, and gave a cry of dismay.

"Broken front axle!" he said. "We're dished, Ned!"

They got out, being no more harmed than by the jolting. The car was out of commission. The two chums looked around Except for a lonely house, that bore every mark of being deserted, not a dwelling was in sight where they might ask for aid or shelter.

And, as they looked, from that lonely house came a strange cry--a cry as though for help!