Chapter VII. Fire on Board
 

"Your electric rifles!" exclaimed Ned Newton, as he followed his chum to the storeroom, where Tom kept a number of spare guns. "It's a good thing you thought of them, Tom."

"Yes, I didn't think we'd need them, for I believe peaceable means are the best to use on natives. But if there's a war, and we have to defend ourselves against the tribes, we'll take along something that will do more damage than an ordinary rifle, and yet I can regulate it so that it will only stun, and not kill."

"That's the stuff, Tom. No use in being needlessly cruel. How many will you take?"

"Two or three. We may need 'em all."

A little later the two lads returned to the library where Mr. Damon, Mr. Swift and the circus man were anxiously awaiting them. Mr. Preston looked curiously at several objects which Tom and Ned carried. The objects looked like guns but were different from any the giant-seeker had seen.

"What are they?" he asked Tom.

"Electric rifles. One of my inventions," and Tom showed how the weapon worked. Those of you who have read the volume entitled, "Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle" will remember this curious weapon. It was worked by a stored charge of magnetism of the wireless kind. By this a concentrated globule of electricity was projected from the muzzle, and it could be made strong or weak at the will of the marksman. It could be made so powerful that it would totally annihilate a whale, as Tom had once proved, or it could be made so mild that it would put an enemy, or several of them, to sleep almost as gently as some narcotic, and they would awaken after several hours, little the worse for their experience.

A charge of electricity as powerful as five thousand volts could be concentrated into a small wireless globule the size of a bullet, and this would fly through space, or even through solid objects until, reaching the limit of the range set, would strike the object aimed at. With his wonderful electric rifle Tom had not only killed elephants, and other big game, but fought off the red pygmies of Africa.

"And we may have a use for it in South America," he added as he explained the workings to Mr. Preston.

"Well, I'm glad you didn't back out," commented the circus man, "and this may come in mighty handy. I'll feel easier about you now, Tom, when I know you have some electric rifles with you."

The circus man was told of what Eradicate had said to Andy, but he was of the opinion that no harm would result from it.

"As far as I can learn," went on Mr. Preston, "my old rival Waydell has given up the giant idea. He is looking for a two-headed crocodile, said to be somewhere along the Nile river, and he's fitting out an expedition there I understand. I guess we won't be bothered with him. But the giant for mine! If I get that sort of an attraction his two-headed crocodile won't be in it. I hope you have luck, Tom Swift."

The last details of the expedition were considered. Nothing seemed to have been left undone, and though carrying the electric rifles would make a little more baggage, no one minded that.

"I kin carry dem," said Eradicate. "I ain't got much baggage of mah own."

So it was arranged, and early the next morning the little band of intrepid travelers, who were going in search of giant land, started for New York. They little knew what was ahead of them, nor what dire perils they were to pass through.

Of course Tom had said good-bye to Mary Nestor and half-jokingly, he had promised to bring back a giant of his own, that she might see one outside of a circus.

"But, Tom," Mary exclaimed with a laugh, "what will you do with one of the big creatures if you get one?"

"Have him help me on my newest invention--the noiseless airship," answered the young inventor. "I need some one to lift heavy weights. It will save putting up a derrick. Yes, I think I'll get a giant of my own."

The last good-byes were said, and the parting between Tom and his father was affecting.

"I'll soon be back, dad," he said in as cheerful a tone as he could assume, "and I'll help you finish your gyroscope."

"I hope you will, Tom," and then, with a pressure of his son's hand, Mr. Swift turned away and went into the house, closing the door after him.

The first part of the trip to New York was rather a silent one, no one caring to talk much. Eradicate was the only cheerful member of the party, which included the circus man, who was going as far as the steamer with Tom and his friends.

"Say," Ned exclaimed finally, "any one would think we were going to a funeral!"

"That's right," agreed Tom. "I guess something is on all our nerves. Let's do something to take it off. Here comes a boy with some funny papers. We'll buy some and read all the jokes."

This proved a diversion, and before the train had gone many miles more the giant-hunters were talking and laughing as though they were merely starting on a short pleasure trip, instead of an expedition to the dangerous jungles of South America.

They put up at a good hotel in New York, and as soon as they were established Tom and Mr. Preston went to the steamer Calaban which was to land them at Buenos Ayres. They found that there was some confusion about their luggage and boxes, and it took them the better part of a day to get the tangle straightened out, and their stuff stored together in one hold.

"It will be easier to get it out if it's all together," said Tom, at the conclusion of their labors, and then he and the circus man returned to the hotel. The ship was to sail two days later, and, several hours before the time set for the departure, Tom and his friends were on board.

"You don't see anything of your rival circus friend, do you?" asked Tom, of the man who wanted a giant.

"Not a sign," was the answer, as Mr. Preston glanced over the throng of on-coming passengers. "I guess we've either given him the slip, or he's given up the game. You won't have to worry about him. Just take it easy until you start for the interior, and from then on you'll have hard work enough."

The last of the cargo was being taken aboard, the late passengers had arrived and were anxiously watching to see that their baggage was not lost. As Mr. Preston stood talking with Tom near the gangplank, a clerical looking gentleman approached the circus man.

"I beg your pardon," he began in mild accents, "but could you tell me where my stateroom is?" and he showed his ticket. "I'm not used to traveling," he needlessly added for that fact was very evident. Mr. Preston informed him how to get to his berth, and the gentleman went on: "Are you going all the way to Buenos Ayres?"

"No, but my friend is," and the circus man nodded at Tom.

"Oh, I'm so glad!" the stranger exclaimed. "Then I shall have someone of whom I can ask questions. I am quite lost when I travel."

"I'll help you all I can," volunteered Tom, "and I'll show you to your stateroom now."

"Ah, thank you. Your name is--"

"Tom Swift," supplied the young inventor.

"Ah, yes, I believe I have read about your airships. I am the Reverend Josiah Blinderpool. I am taking a little vacation. I trust we shall become good friends."

"Humph, he's a regular infant, to be away from civilization," mused Tom, when he had showed the clergyman to the proper stateroom. "He'll get into trouble, he's so innocent." If he could have seen that same "clergyman" double up with mirth when he had closed his stateroom door after him, Tom would not have felt so sure about that same "innocence."

"To think that I was talking face to face with Sam Preston and he never tumbled to who I was!" exclaimed the newcomer softly. "That's rich! Now if I play my cards right I shouldn't be surprised but what they'd invite me to come along with them. That would just suit me. I wouldn't have any trouble then, getting on the track of those giants. The information Waydell got from that red-haired Foger chap wasn't any too definite," and once more the man wearing the garb of a minister chuckled.

"Well, I'll say good-bye," remarked Mr. Preston, a little later, when the warning bell had rung. "I guess you'll get along all right. I haven't seen a sign of Waydell, or any of his slick agents. You'll have no trouble I guess."

But if the circus man could have seen the "clergyman" at that same time looking over letters addressed to "Hank Delby," and signed "Wayland Waydell" he would not have been so confident.

Mr. Preston bade good-bye to his friends, the gangplank was hauled up, and a hoarse blast came from the whistle of the Calaban.

"Bless my pocketbook!" cried Mr. Damon. "We're off!"

"Yep, off t' git dat big, giant orchard plant," chimed in Eradicate.

"Hush!" exclaimed Tom, who did not like the use of the word "giant" even in that connection. "Don't tell everyone our business, Rad."

"Dat's right, Massa Tom. I clean done forgot dat it's a sort of secret. I'll keep mighty still 'bout it."

The Calaban swung out into the river and began steaming down the bay.

The first week of the voyage was uneventful. The weather was exceptionally fine, and hardly any one was seasick. The Reverend Mr. Blinderpool was often on deck, and he made it a point to cultivate the acquaintance of Tom and his friends. In spite of the fact that he said he had traveled very little, he seemed to know much about hidden corners of the world, but always, as on an occasion when he had accidentally let slip some remark that showed he had been in far-off China or Asia, he would suddenly change the conversation when it verged to travel.

"There's something queer about that minister," said Ned after one of these occasions, "but I can't decide what it is."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Tom, who rather liked the man.

"No nonsense about it. Why should a minister take a trip like this when he isn't sick, and when he isn't going to establish a mission in South America? There's something queer about it, for, by his own words he just took this voyage as a whim."

"Oh, you're too fussy," declared Tom; and for the time the subject was dropped.

They ran into a storm when about ten days out, and for a while they had a rough time of it, and then the weather cleared again.

It was one evening, after the formal dinner, when Tom and Ned were strolling about on deck, before turning in, that, the quiet of the ship was broken by what is always an alarming cry at sea.

"Fire! Fire!" shouted a man, pointing to a thin wisp of smoke curling up from the deck amidships.

"Keep quiet!" yelled one of the stewards. "It is nothing!"

"It's a fire, I tell you!" insisted the man, and several others took up the cry.

A panic was imminent, and the captain came running from his quarters.

"What is it?" he asked.

An officer hurried to his side, and said something but in such a low voice that Tom, who was standing close beside the two, scarcely heard it. But he did hear this:

"There's a fire, sir, in hold number seventeen. We have turned the hose in there, and the pumps are working."

"Very good, Mr. Meld. Now try and quiet the passengers. Tell them it doesn't amount to much, and if it does we can flood that compartment."

Tom started at that.

"Come on, Ned!" he cried, grabbing his chum by the arm.

"Why, what's up? What's the matter?"

"Matter? Matter enough! The fire is in the hold where all our stuff is stored, and if the flames reach that box I packed last--well, I wouldn't give much for the ship!" and fairly dragging his chum along, Tom raced for the place where the smoke was now coming up in thicker clouds.