Chapter III. Tom Will Go

"Jove! That sounds interesting!" exclaimed Ned, as he settled himself comfortably in his chair.

"It is interesting," replied the circus man. "At least I found it so when I first listened to one of my men tell it. But whether it is possible to get to giant land, and, what is more bring away some of the big men, is something I leave to you, Tom Swift. After you have heard my story, if you decide to go, I'll stand all the expenses of fitting out an expedition, and if you fail I won't have a word to say. If, on the other hand, you bring me back a giant or two, I'll pay you ten thousand dollars and all expenses. Is it a bargain?"

"Let me hear the story first," suggested our hero, who was a cautious lad when there was need for it. Yet he liked Mr. Preston, even at first sight, in spite of his "loud" attire, and the rather "circusy" manner in which he had entered the room. Then too, if he was a friend of Mr. Damon, that was a great deal in his favor.

"I am, as you know, in the circus business," began Mr. Preston. "I have a number of traveling shows, and several large museums in the big cities. I am always on the lookout for new attractions, for the public demands them. Once get in the rut of having nothing new, and your business will fall off. I know, for I've been in the business, man and boy, for nearly forty years. I began as a performer, and I can still do a double somersault over fifteen elephants in a row. I always keep in practice for there's nothing like showing a performer how to do a thing yourself."

"But about the giants, which is what I'm interested in most now. Of course I've had giants in my circuses and museums, from the beginning. The public wanted 'em and we had to have 'em. Some of 'em were fakes--men on stilts with long pants to cover up their legs, and others were the real, genuine, all-wool-and-a-yard-wide article. But none of them were very big. A shade under eight feet was the limit with me."

"I also have lots of wild animals, and it was when some of my men were out after some tapirs, jaguars and leopards that I got on the track of the giants. It was about a year ago, but up to this time I haven't seen my way clear to send after the big men. It was this way:"

Mr. Preston assumed a more comfortable position in his chair, nodded at Mr. Damon, who was listening attentively to all that was said, and resumed.

"As I said I had sent Jake Poddington, one of my best men, after tapirs and some other South American animals. He didn't have very good luck hunting along the Amazon. In the first place that region has been pretty well cleaned out of circus animals, and another thing it's getting too well populated. Another thing is that you can't get the native hunters and beaters to work for you as they did years ago."

"So Poddington wrote to me that he was going to take his assistants, make a big jump, and hike it for the Argentine Republic. He had a tip that along the Salado river there might be something doing, and I told him to go ahead."

"He shipped me what few animals he had, and lit out for a three thousand mile journey. I didn't hear from him for some time, and, when I did, I got the finest collection of animals I had ever laid eyes on. I got them about the same time I did a letter from Jake, for the mail service ain't what you could call rushing in that part of South America."

"But what about the giants?" interrupted Mr. Damon.

"I'm coming to them," replied the circus man calmly. "It was this way: At the tail of his letter which he sent with the shipment of animals Jake said this, and I remember it almost word for word:"

"'If all goes well,' he wrote, 'I'll have a big surprise for you soon. I've heard a story about a race of big natives that have their stamping ground in this section, and I'm going to try for a few specimens. I know how much you want a giant.'"

"Well?" asked Tom, after a pause, for the circus man had ceased talking and was staring out of the opened library window into the garden that was just becoming green.

"That was all I ever heard from poor Jake," said Mr. Preston softly.

"Bless my insurance policy!" gasped Mr. Damon. "You didn't tell me that! What happened to him."

"I never could find out," resumed Mr. Preston. "I never heard another word from him, and I've never seen him from the time I parted with him to go after the animals. The letter saying he was going after the giants was the last line of his I've seen."

"But didn't you try to locate him?" asked Tom. "Didn't he have some companions--some one who could tell what became of him?"

"Of course I tried!" exclaimed Mr. Preston. "Do you think I'd let a man like Jake disappear without making some effort to find him? But he was the only white man in his party, the rest were natives. That was Jake's way. Well, when some time past and I didn't hear from him, I got busy. I wrote to our consuls and even some South American merchants with whom I had done business. But it didn't amount to anything."

"Couldn't you get any news?" asked Ned softly.

"Oh, yes, some, but it didn't amount to much. After a long time, and no end of trouble, I had a man locate a native named Zacatas, who was the head beater of the black men under Jake."

"Zacatas said that he and Jake and the others got safely to the Salado river section, but I knew that before, for that was where the fine shipment of animals came from. Then Jake got that tip about the giants, and set off alone into the interior to locate them, for all the natives were afraid to go. That was the last seen of poor Jake."

"Bless my fire shovel!" cried Mr. Damon. "What did Zacatas say became of the poor fellow?"

"No one knew. Whether he reached giant land and was killed there, or whether he was struck down by some wild beast in the jungle, I never could find out. The natives under Zacatas waited in camp for him for some time, and then went back to the Amazon region where they belonged. That's all the news I could get."

"But I'm sure there are giants in the interior of South America, for Jake always knew what he was talking about. Now I want to do two things. I want to get on the trail of poor Jake Poddington if I can, and I want a giant--two or three of them if it can be managed."

"Ever since Jake disappeared I've been trying to arrange things to make a search for him, and for the giants, but up to now something has been in the way. I happened to mention the matter to my friend, Mr. Damon, and he at once spoke of you, Tom Swift."

"Now, what I want to know is this: Will you undertake to get a giant for me, rescue Jake Poddington if he is alive in the interior of South America, or, if he is dead, find out how it happened and give him decent burial? Will you do this, Tom Swift?"

There was a silence in the room following the dramatic and simple recital of the circus man. Tom was strangely moved, as was his chum Ned As for Mr. Damon, he was softly blessing every thing he could think of.

Tom looked out of the long, opened windows of the library. In fancy he could see the forest and jungles of South America. He saw a sluggish river flowing along between rank green banks, while, from the overhanging trees, long festoons of moss hung down, writhing now and then as the big water anacondas or boa constrictors looped their sinuous folds over the low limbs.

In fancy he saw dark-skinned natives slinking along with their deadly blow guns, and poisoned arrows. He thought he could hear the low growls and whines of the treacherous jaguars and see their lithe bodies slinking along. He saw the brilliant-hued flowers, saw the birds of gorgeous plumage, and listened in fancy to their discordant cries.

Then, too, he saw a lonely white man in a miserable native hut thousands of miles from civilization, waiting, waiting, waiting for he knew not what fate. Again he saw monstrous men stalking along-- men who towered ten feet or more, and who were big and brawny. All this passed through the mind of Tom in an instant.

"Well?" asked Mr. Preston softly.

"I'll go!" suddenly cried the young inventor. "I don't know whether I can get you a giant or not, Mr. Preston, but if it's possible I'll get poor Jake Poddington, dead or alive!"

"Good!" cried the circus man, jumping up and clasping Tom's hand. "I thought you were that kind of a lad, after I heard Mr. Damon describe you. You've taken a big load off my heart, Tom Swift. Now to talk of ways and means! I'll have a giant yet, and maybe I'll get back the best man who ever shipped a consignment of wild animals, good Jake Poddington! Now to business!"