Chapter XXIV. The Airship Flight
 

For a few moments there was confusion inside the hut that was to be the last stronghold of our friends against the approaching force of giants. Confusion and not a little fear were mingled, for Tom's words sent a chill to every heart. Then, after the first panic, there came a calmer feeling--a feeling that each one would do his duty in the face of danger and, if he had to die, he would die fighting.

"Everyone take a window!" yelled Tom. "Don't kill any one if you can help it. Shoot to disable, Rad. Mr. Poddington, there's an extra shotgun somewhere about! See if you can find it. We'll use the electric rifles. Get those Roman candles somebody!"

Tom was like a general giving orders, and once his friends realized that he was managing things they felt more confidence. Ned grasped his electric rifle, as did Mr. Damon, and they stood ready to use them.

"The strongest stunning charge!" ordered the young inventor. "Something that will lay 'em out for a good while. We'll teach 'em a lesson!"

BANG!

That was Eradicate's shotgun going off. It had a double load in it, and the wonder of it was that the barrel did not burst. It sounded like a small cannon, but it had the good effect of checking the first rush of giants, for the electric rifles had not yet been adjusted, and Mr. Poddington, in the light of the single electric torch that had been left burning, could find neither the spare shotgun nor the Roman candles.

BANG!

Eradicate let the other barrel go, almost in the faces of the advancing giants, but over their heads, for he bore in mind Tom's words not to injure.

"That's the stuff!" cried Tom. "Come on now, Ned, we're ready for 'em!"

But the giants had retreated, and could be seen standing in groups about the hut, evidently planning what to do next. Then from back in the village there shone a glare of light.

"Bless my insurance policy! It's a fire!" cried Mr. Damon. "They're going to burn us out!"

"Jove! If they do!" exclaimed Ned.

"We mustn't let 'em!" shouted Tom. "Fire, Ned!"

Together the chums discharged their electric rifles at the enemy and a number of them fell, stunned, and were carried away by their companions.

The glaring light approached and now it could be seen that it was caused by a number of the big men carrying torches of some kind of blazing wood. It did look as though they intended to fire the prison hut.

"Give 'em another taste of it!" shouted Ned, and this time the three electric rifles shot out their streaks of blue flame, for Mr. Damon had his in action. It was still dark in the hut, for to set aglow more of the electric torches meant that Tom and his friends would be exposed to view, and would be the targets for the arrows, or darts from the deadly blow guns.

Several more of the giants toppled over, and then began a retreat to some distance, the first squad of fighters going to meet the men who had come up with the torches. There was no sign of women or children.

"Shall we fire again?" asked Ned.

"No," answered Tom. "Save your ammunition until they are closer, and we'll be surer of our marks. Besides, if they let us alone that's all we ask. We don't want to hurt 'em."

"Bless my gizzard!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "I wonder why they attacked us, anyhow?"

"Maybe it's about the two giant brothers who have not come back," suggested Mr. Poddington. "They may imagine that we have them captive, and they want to rescue them."

"That's so," admitted Tom. "Well, if they had only postponed this reception for a few hours we'd have been out of their way, and they wouldn't have had this trouble," and he glanced at the aeroplane, that stood in the big hut, ready for instant flight.

"They're coming back!" suddenly shouted Ned, and a look from the half-opened windows showed the giants again advancing.

"I've got the Roman candles!" called Mr. Poddington from a corner where he had been rummaging in that box of Tom's which contained so many surprises. "What shall I do with 'em?"

"Let 'em go right in their faces!" yelled Tom. "They won't do much damage, but they'll throw a scare into the big fellows! Get ready, Ned!"

"They're dividing!" shouted his chum. "They're coming at us from two sides!"

"They're only trying to confuse us," decided Tom. "Fire at the main body!" And with that he opened up with his electric rifle, an example followed by Mr. Damon and Ned.

With a whizz, and several sharp explosions, the circus man got the Roman candles into action. The glaring fire of them lighted up the scene better than did the flaming torches of the giants, and truly it was a wonderful sight. There, in that lonely hut, in the midst of a South American jungle, four intrepid white persons, and an aged but brave negro, stood against hundreds of giants--mighty men, who, had they come to a personal contact, any one of which would have been more than a match for the combined strength of Tom and his party. It was a weird picture that the young inventor looked out upon, but his heart did not quail.

Giant after giant went down under the fierce rain of the electric bullets, stunned, but not otherwise injured. There was a shower of sparks, and a hail of burning balls from the Roman candles, but still the advance was kept up. Eradicate was banging away with his shotgun.

"Dis suah am hot work!" cried the colored man, as his hand came in contact with the barrel. "Wow! It's most red hot!" he added with a cry of pain.

"Use the other gun," advised Tom, never turning his head from the window through which he was aiming. "That one may get choked, and explode in here."

"All right," answered Eradicate.

"Duck!" yelled Ned with sudden energy. "They're going to fire!" A number of the giants could be seen fitting arrows to bow strings, while others raised to their lips the long hollow reeds, from which the blow guns were made. It was the first time the enemy had fired and doubtless they had held back because they hoped to capture Tom and his friends alive. But they did not count on such a stubborn resistance.

Every one moved away from the windows, and not an instant too soon, for, a moment later, a shower of arrows and darts came in, fortunately injuring no one.

Then, above the shouting and yelling of the giants, whose deep, bass voices had a terrorizing effect, there came the din of the tom-toms, making a weird combination of sound.

"We've got 'em on the run again!" cried Ned, and so it proved, for the larger body of giants, who had approached the hut from the front and two sides, were running back.

"Guess they've given it up," exclaimed Tom. "I'm glad of it, too, for--"

He paused and glanced behind him. A tiny spurt of flame at the base of the rear wall of the hut had caught his eye. Instantly the flame grew larger, and a puff of smoke followed.

"Fire!" cried Ned. "We're on fire!"

"Bless my water bucket!" gasped Mr. Damon. "They've set fire to the hut!"

It was but too true. While Tom and the others had been standing off the giants in front, a smaller force had crept around to the rear, and set the inflamable side of the hut ablaze.

Desperately Tom looked around. There was no means at hand of fighting fire. Hardly a bucket of water was in the place, and the structure was filled with quick-burning stuff, while the fireworks that remained, and the blasting powder, made it doubly dangerous. Then Tom's eyes lighted on the big aeroplane, ready for instant service.

"That's it!" he cried suddenly. "It's our only hope, and the last one! Come on, everybody! Down with that wall! Pull on the ropes and it will come! We've got to go now. In another minute it will be too late. Climb up, Mr. Poddington, Mr. Damon, Ned, and I will start the machine."

"The wall first! The wall!" cried Ned.

"Sure," answered Tom. He and his friends grasped the two ropes that had been attached to the key-beams in the structure. It had been so arranged that when the supports were pulled out the wall would fall outward, making a fairly smooth and level gangplank, on which the aeroplane could rush from the hut.

There was a creaking of timbers, a straining of ropes, and then, with a crash, the wall fell. Instantly there was a yell of surprise from the giants, and a brighter glare from the torches, as those carrying them rushed up to see what had happened. The din of the tom-toms was well-nigh deafening. Fortunately the enemy forgot to take advantage of the opening and pour in a flight of arrows or darts.

"Start the motor!" cried Tom to his chum.

There was a rattling, banging noise, like a salvo of small arms, and the big propellers revolved with incredible swiftness. The two white men were already in place, and now Eradicate, still carrying his shotgun, clambered up.

"Up with you, Ned!" yelled Tom. "I'm going to head her around and make a flying start."