Chapter XXV. The Airship Capture
 

"Did you hear that?" cried Ned.

"I certainly did," answered Tom. "What was it."

"Sounded to me like a cry of some sort."

"It was. An animal, I'd say."

The two chums moved away from the broken auto, and looked at each other. Then, by a common impulse, they started toward the lonely house, which was set back some distance from the road.

"Let's see who it was," suggested Tom, "After all, though it looks deserted, there may be someone in the house, and we've got to have some kind of help. I don't want to leave my car on the road all night, though it will have to be repaired before I can use it again."

"It sure is a bad break," agreed Ned.

As they walked toward the deserted House they heard the strange cry again. It was louder this time, and following it the boys heard a sound as if a blow had been struck.

"Someone is being attacked!" cried Tom. "Maybe some poor tramp has taken shelter in there and a dog is after them. Come on, Ned, we've got to help!"

They started on a run for the lonely house, but while still some distance away a curious thing happened.

There was a sudden cry--an appeal for help it seemed--but this time in the open. And, as Tom and Ned looked, they saw several men running from the rear of the old house. Between them they carried an inert form,

"Something's wrong!" exclaimed Tom, "There's crooked work going on here, Ned."

"You're right! It's up to us to stop it! Come on!"

But before the boys had taken half a dozen more steps they heard that which caused them great surprise. For from a shed behind the house came the unmistakable throb and roar of a motor.

"They're going off in an auto!" cried Ned.

"And they're carrying someone with them!" exclaimed Tom.

By this time they had gotten to a point where they could see the shed, and what was their astonishment to see being rolled from it a big biplane. At the sight of it Tom cried:

"It's the Eagle! That's my airship, Ned!"

"You're right! How did it get here?"

"That's for us to find out. I shouldn't wonder, Ned, but what we're at last on the trail of Peters and his crowd!"

The men--there were four or five of them, Ned guessed--now broke into a run, still carrying among them the inert form of another. The cries for help had ceased, and it seemed as if the unfortunate one was unconscious.

A moment later, and before the boys could do anything, had they the power, the men fairly jumped aboard Tom Swift's biggest airship. The unconscious one was carried with them.

Then the motor was speeded up. The roar and throbbing were almost deafening.

"Stop that! Hold on! That's my machine!" yelled Tom.

He might as well have spoken to the wind. With a rush and a roar the big Eagle shot away and upward, carrying the men and their mysterious, unconscious companion. It was getting too dark for Tom and Ned to make out the forms or features of the strangers.

"We're too late!" said Ned, hopelessly.

"Yes, they got away," agreed Tom. "Oh, if only I had my speedy little monoplane!"

"But who can they be? How did your airship get here? And who is that man they carried out of the house?" cried Ned.

"I don't know the last--maybe one of their crowd who was injured in a fight."

"What crowd?"

"The Peters gang, of course. Can't you see it, Ned?"

Unable to do anything, the two youths watched the flight of the Eagle. She did not move at her usual speed, for she was carrying too heavy a load.

Presently from the air overhead, and slightly behind them, the boys heard the sound of another motor. They turned quickly.

"Look!" cried Ned. "Another airship, by all that's wonderful!"

"If we could only stop them!" exclaimed Tom. "That's a big machine, and they could take us aboard. Then we could chase the Eagle. We could catch her, too, for she's overloaded!"

Frantically he and Tom waved their caps at the man who was now almost overhead in his airship. The boys did not call. They well knew, with the noise of the motor, the occupant of the airship could not hear them. But they waved and pointed to the slowly- moving Eagle.

To their surprise and delight the man above them shut off his engine, and seemed about to come down. Then Tom cried, knowing he could be heard:

"Help us capture that airship? It's mine and they've stolen it!"

"All right! Be with you in a minute!" came back the answer from above.

The second biplane came down to earth, ands as it ceased running along on its bicycle wheels, the occupant jumped out.

"Hello, Tom Swift!" he called, as he took off his goggles.

"Why--why it's Mr. Halling!" cried the young inventor, in delight, recognizing the birdman who had brought him the first news of Mr. Damon's trouble, the day the airship became entangled in the aerials of the wireless on Tom's house.

"What are you doing here, Tom?" asked Mr. Hailing. "What has happened?"

"We're looking for Mr. Damon. That's a bad crowd there," and he pointed toward the other aircraft. "They have my Eagle. Can you help me catch them?"

"I certainly can--and will! Get aboard! I can carry four."

"Then you have a new machine?"

"Yes, and a dandy! All the latest improvements--self-starter and all! I'm glad of a chance to show it to you."

"And I'm glad, too!" cried Tom. "It was providential that you happened along. What were you doing here?"

"Just out on a trial spin. But come on, if we're going to catch those fellows!"

Quickly Tom, Ned, and Mr. Halling climbed into the seats of the new airship. It was started from a switch, and in a few seconds it was on the wing, chasing after the Eagle.

Then began a strange race, a race in the air after the unknown strangers who had Tom's machine. Had the Eagle not been so heavily laden it might have escaped, for Tom's craft was a speedy one. But this time it had to give the palm to Mr. Grant Halling's. Faster and faster in pursuit flew the Star, as the new craft was called. Faster and faster, until at last, coming directly over the Eagle, Mr. Halling sent his craft down in such a manner as to "blanket" the other. In an instant she began to sink, and with cries of alarm the men shut off the motor and started to volplane to the earth.

But they made an unskillful landing. The Eagle tilted to one side, and came down with a crash. There were cries of pain, then silence, and a few seconds later two men ran away from the disabled airship. But there were three senseless forms on the ground beside the craft when Tom, Ned and Mr. Halling ran up. In the fading light Tom saw a face he knew--three faces in fact.

"Mr. Damon!" he cried. "We've found him, Ned!"

"But--too late--maybe!" answered Ned, in a low voice, as he, too, recognized the man who had been missing so long.

Mr. Halling was bending over the unconscious form of his friend.

"He's alive!" he cried, joyfully. "And not much hurt, either. But he has been ill, and looks half starved. Who are these men?"

Tom gave a hasty look.

"Shallock Peters and Harrison Boylan!" he cried. "Ned, at last we've caught the scoundrels!"

It was true. Chance had played into the hands of Tom Swift. While Mr. Halling was looking after Mr. Damon, reviving him, the young inventor and Ned quickly bound the hands and feet of the two plotters with pieces of wire from the broken airship.

Presently Mr. Damon opened his eyes.

"Where am I? What happened? Oh, bless my watch chain--it's Tom Swift! Bless my cigar case, I--"

"He's all right!" cried Tom, joyfully. "When Mr. Damon blesses something beside his tombstone he's all right."

Peters and Boylan soon revived, both being merely stunned, as was Mr. Damon. They looked about in wonder, and then, feeling that they were prisoners, resigned themselves to their fate. Both men were shabbily dressed, and Tom would hardly have known the once spick and span Mr. Peters. He had no rose in his buttonhole now.

"Well, you have me, I see," he said, coolly. "I was afraid we were playing for too high a stake."

"Yes, we've got you," replied Tom,

"But you can't prove much against me," went on Peters. "I'll deny everything."

"We'll see about that," added the young inventor, grimly, and thought of the picture in the plate and the record on the wax cylinder.

"We've got to get Mr. Damon to some place where he can be looked after," broke in Mr. Halling. "Then we'll hear the story."

A passing farmer was prevailed on to take the party in his big wagon to the nearest town, Mr. Hailing going on ahead in his airship. Tom's craft could not be moved, being badly damaged.

Once in town Peters and Boylan were put in jail, on the charges for which Tom carried warrants. Mr. Damon was taken to a hotel and a doctor summoned. It was as Mr. Halling had guessed. His friend had been ill, and so weak that he could not get out of bed. It was this that enabled the plotters to so easily keep him a prisoner.

By degrees Mr. Damon told his story. He had rashly allowed Peters to get control of most of his fortune, and, in a vain hope of getting back some of his losses, had, one night--the night he disappeared, in fact--agreed to meet Peters and some of his men to talk matters over. Of this Mr. Damon said nothing to his wife.

He went out that night to meet Peters in the garden, but the plotters had changed their plans. They boldly kidnapped their victim, chloroformed him and took him away in Tom's airship, which Boylan and some of his tools daringly stole a short time previously. Later they returned it, as they had no use for it at the lonely house.

Mr. Damon was taken to the house, and there kept a prisoner. The men hoped to prevail on the fears of his wife to make her give up the valuable property. But we have seen how Tom foiled Peters.

The experience of Mr. Damon, coupled with rough treatment he received, and lack of good food, soon made him ill. He was so weak that he could not help himself, and with that he was kept under guard. So he had no chance to escape or send his wife or friends any word.

"But I'm all right now, Tom, thanks to you!" said he. "Bless my pocketbook, I don't care if my fortune is lost, as long as I'm alive and can get back to my wife."

"But I don't believe your fortune will be lost," said Tom. "I think I have the picture and other evidence that will save it," and he told of his photo telephone, and of what it had accomplished.

"Bless my eyelashes!" cried Mr. Damon. "What a young man you are, Tom Swift!"

Tom smiled gladly. He knew now that his old friend was himself once more.

There is little left to tell. Chance had aided Tom in a most wonderful way--chance and the presence of Mr. Halling with his airship at just the right moment.

Tom made a diligent effort to find out who it was that had chloroformed him in the telephone booth that time, but learned nothing definite. Peters and Boylan were both examined as to this on their trials, but denied it, and the young inventor was forced to conclude that it must have been some of the unscrupulous men who had taken his father's patent some time before.

"They may have heard of your prosperity, and thought it a good chance to rob you," suggested Ned.

"Maybe," agreed Tom. "Well, we'll let it go at that. Only I hope they don't come again."

Mr. Damon was soon home with his wife again, and Peters and Boylan were held in heavy bail. They had secreted most of Mr. Damon's wealth, falsely telling him it was lost, and they were forced to give back his fortune. The evidence against them was clear and conclusive. When Tom went into court with his phonograph record of the talk of Peters, even though the man's voice was hoarse from a cold when he talked, and when his picture was shown, in the telephone booth, the jury at once convicted him.

Boylan, when he learned of the missing button in Tom's possession, confessed that he and some of his men who were birdmen had taken Tom's airship. They wanted a means of getting Mr. Damon to the lonely house without being traced, and they accomplished it.

As Tom had surmised, Peters had become suspicious after his last talk with Mrs. Damon, and had fled. He disguised himself and went into hiding with the others at the lonely house. Then he learned that the authorities of another city. where he had swindled many, were on his trail, and he decided to decamp with his gang, taking Mr. Damon with them. For this purpose Tom's airship was taken the second time, and a wholesale escape, with Mr. Damon a prisoner, was planned.

But fate was against the plotters. Two of them did manage to get away, but they were not really wanted. The big fish were Peters and Boylan, and they were securely caught in the net of the law. Peters was greatly surprised when he learned of Tom's trap, and of the photo telephone. He had no idea he had been incriminating himself when he talked over the wire.

"Well, it's all over," remarked Ned to Tom, one day, when the disabled auto and the airship had been brought home and repaired. "The plotters are in prison for long terms, and Mr. Damon is found, together with his fortune. The photo telephone did it, Tom."

"Not all of it--but a good bit," admitted the young inventor, with a smile.

"What are you going to do next, Tom?"

"I hardly know. I think--"

Before Tom could finish, a voice was heard in the hall outside the library.

"Bless my overshoes! Where's Tom? I want to thank him again for what he did for me," and Mr. Damon, now fully recovered, came in. "Bless my suspender button, but it's good to be alive, Tom!" he cried.

"It certainly is," agreed Tom. "And the next time you go for a conference with such men as Peters, look out for airships."

"I will, Tom, I will!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Bless my watch chain, I will!"

And now, for a time, we will say good-bye to Tom Swift, leaving him to perfect his other inventions.