Chapter I. A Narrow Escape
 

"That's the way to do it! Whoop her up, Andy! Shove the spark lever over, and turn on more gasolene! We'll make a record this trip."

Two lads in the tonneau of a touring car, that was whirling along a country road, leaned forward to speak to the one at the steering wheel. The latter was a red-haired youth, with somewhat squinty eyes, and not a very pleasant face, but his companions seemed to regard him with much favor. Perhaps it was because they were riding in his automobile.

"Whoop her up, Andy!" added the lad on the seat beside the driver. "This is immense!"

"I rather thought you'd like it," remarked Andy Foger, as he turned the car to avoid a stone in the road. "I'll make things hum around Shopton!"

"You have made them hum already, Andy," commented the lad beside him. "My ears are ringing. Wow! There goes my cap!"

As the boy spoke, the breeze, created by the speed at which the car was traveling, lifted off his cap, and sent it whirling to the rear.

Andy Foger turned for an instant's glance behind. Then he opened the throttle still wider, and exclaimed:

"Let it go, Sam. We can get another. I want to see what time I can make to Mansburg! I want to break a record, if I can."

"Look out, or you'll break something else!" cried a lad on the rear seat. "There's a fellow on a bicycle just ahead of us. Take care, Andy!"

"Let him look out for himself," retorted Foger, as he bent lower over the steering wheel, for the car was now going at a terrific rate. The youth on the bicycle was riding slowly along, and did not see the approaching automobile until it was nearly upon him. Then, with a mean grin, Andy Foger pressed the rubber bulb of the horn with sudden energy, sending out a series of alarming blasts.

"It's Tom Swift!" cried Sam Snedecker. "Look out, or you'll run him down!"

"Let him keep out of my way," retorted Andy savagely.

The youth on the wheel, with a sudden spurt of speed, tried to cross the highway. He did manage to do it, but by such a narrow margin that in very terror Andy Foger shut off the power, jammed down the brakes and steered to one side. So suddenly was he obliged to swerve over that the ponderous machine skidded and went into the ditch at the side of the road, where it brought up, tilting to one side.

Tom Swift, his face rather pale from his narrow escape, leaped from his bicycle, and stood regarding the automobile. As for the occupants of that machine, from Andy Foger, the owner, to the three cronies who were riding with him, they all looked very much astonished.

"Are we--is it damaged any, Andy?" asked Sam Snedecker.

"I hope not," growled Andy. "If my car's hurt it's Tom Swift's fault!"

He leaped from his seat and made a hurried inspection of the machine. He found nothing the matter, though it was more from good luck than good management. Then Andy turned and looked savagely at Tom Swift. The latter, standing his wheel up against the fence, walked forward.

"What do you mean by getting in the way like that?" demanded Andy with a scowl. "Don't you see that you nearly upset me?"

"Well, I like your nerve, Andy Foger!" cried Tom. "What do you mean by nearly running me down? Why didn't you sound your horn? You automobilists take too much for granted! You were going faster than the legal rate, anyhow!"

"I was, eh?" sneered Andy.

"Yes, you were, and you know it. I'm the one to make a kick, not you. You came pretty near hitting me. Me getting in your way! I guess I've got some rights on the road!"

"Aw, go on!" growled Andy, for he could think of nothing else to say. "Bicycles are a back number, anyhow."

"It isn't so very long ago that you had one," retorted Tom. "First you fellows know, you'll be pulled in for speeding."

"I guess we had better go slower, Andy," advised Sam in a low voice. "I don't want to be arrested."

"Leave this to me," retorted Andy. "I'm running this tour. The next time you get in my way I'll run you down!" he threatened Tom. "Come on, fellows, we're late now, and can't make a record run, all on account of him," and Andy got back into the car, followed by his cronies, who had hurriedly alighted after their thrilling stop.

"If you try anything like this again you'll wish you hadn't," declared Tom, and he watched the automobile party ride off.

"Oh, forget it!" snapped back Andy, and he laughed, his companions joining.

Tom Swift said nothing in reply. Slowly he remounted his wheel and rode off, but his thoughts toward Andy Foger were not very pleasant ones. Andy was the son of a wealthy man of the town, and his good fortune in the matter of money seemed to have spoiled him, for he was a bully and a coward. Several times he and Tom Swift had clashed, for Andy was overbearing. But this was the first time Andy had shown such a vindictive spirit.

"He thinks he can run over everything since he got his new auto," commented Tom aloud as he rode on. "He'll have a smash-up some day, if he isn't careful. He's too fond of speeding. I wonder where he and his crowd are going?"

Musing over his narrow escape Tom rode on, and was soon at his home, where he lived with his widowed father, Barton Swift, a wealthy inventor, and the latter's housekeeper, Mrs. Baggert. Approaching a machine shop, one of several built near his house by Mr. Swift, in which he conducted experiments and constructed apparatus. Tom was met by his parent.

"What's the matter, Tom?" asked Mr. Swift. "You look as if something had happened."

"Something very nearly did," answered the youth, and related his experience on the road.

"Humph," remarked the inventor; "your little pleasure-jaunt might have ended disastrously. I suppose Andy and his chums are off on their trip. I remember Mr. Foger speaking to me about it the other day. He said Andy and some companions were going on a tour, to be gone a week or more. Well, I'm glad it was no worse. But have you anything special to do, Tom?"

"No; I was just riding for pleasure, and if you want me to do anything, I'm ready."

"Then I wish you'd take this letter to Mansburg for me. I want it registered, and I don't wish to mail it in the Shopton post-office. It's too important, for it's about a valuable invention."

"The new turbine motor, dad?"

"That's it. And on your way I wish you'd stop in Merton's machine shop and get some bolts he's making for me."

"I will. Is that the letter?" and Tom extended his hand for a missive his father held.

"Yes. Please be careful of it. It's to my lawyers in Washington regarding the final steps in getting a patent for the turbine. That's why I'm so particular about not wanting it mailed here. Several times before I have posted letters here, only to have the information contained in them leak out before my attorneys received them. I do not want that to happen in this case. Another thing; don't speak about my new invention in Merton's shop when you stop for the bolts."

"Why, do you think he gave out information concerning your work?"

"Well, not exactly. He might not mean to, but he told me the other day that some strangers were making inquiries of him, about whether he ever did any work for me."

"What did he tell them?"

"He said that he occasionally did, but that most of my inventive work was done in my own shops, here. He wanted to know why the men were asking such questions, and one of them said they expected to open a machine shop soon, and wanted to ascertain if they might figure on getting any of my trade. But I don't believe that was their object."

"What do you think it was?"

"I don't know, exactly, but I was somewhat alarmed when I heard this from Merton. So I am going to take no risks. That's why I send this letter to Mansburg. Don't lose it, and don't forget about the bolts. Here is a blue-print of them, so you can see if they come up to the specifications."

Tom rode off on his wheel, and was soon spinning down the road.

"I wonder if I'll meet Andy Foger and his cronies again?" he thought. "Not very likely to, I guess, if they're off on a tour. Well, I'm just as well satisfied. He and I always seem to get into trouble when we meet." Tom was not destined to meet Andy again that day, but the time was to come when the red-haired bully was to cause Tom Swift no little trouble, and get him into danger besides. So Tom rode along, thinking over what his father had said to him about the letter he carried.

Mr. Barton Swift was a natural inventor. From a boy he had been interested in things mechanical, and one of his first efforts had been to arrange a system of pulleys, belts and gears so that the windmill would operate the churn in the old farmhouse where he was born. The fact that the mill went so fast that it broke the churn all to pieces did not discourage him, and he at once set to work, changing the gears. His father had to buy a new churn, but the young inventor made his plan work on the second trial, and thereafter his mother found butter-making easy.

From then on Barton Swift lived in a world of inventions. People used to say he would never amount to anything, that inventors never did, but Mr. Swift proved them all wrong by amassing a considerable fortune out of his many patents. He grew up, married and had one son, Tom. Mrs. Barton died when Tom was three years old, and since then he had lived with his father and a succession of nurses and housekeepers. The last woman to have charge of the household was a Mrs. Baggert, a motherly widow, and she succeeded so well, and Tom and his father formed such an attachment for her, that she was regarded as a fixture, and had now been in charge ten years.

Mr. Swift and his son lived in a handsome house on the outskirts of the village of Shopton, in New York State. The village was near a large body of water, which I shall call Lake Carlopa, and there Tom and his father used to spend many pleasant days boating, for Tom and the inventor were better chums than many boys are, and they were often seen together in a craft rowing about, or fishing. Of course Tom had some boy friends, but he went with his father more often than he did with them.

Though many of Mr. Swift's inventions paid him well, he was constantly seeking to perfect others. To this end he had built near his home several machine shops, with engines, lathes and apparatus for various kinds of work. Tom, too, had the inventive fever in his veins, and had planned some useful implements and small machines.

Along the pleasant country roads on a fine day in April rode Tom Swift on his way to Mansburg to register the letter. As he descended a little hill he saw, some distance away, but coming toward him, a great cloud of dust.

"Somebody must be driving a herd of cattle along the road," thought Tom. "I hope they don't get in my way, or, rather, I hope I don't get in theirs. Guess I'd better keep to one side, yet there isn't any too much room."

The dust-cloud came nearer. It was so dense that whoever or whatever was making it could not he distinguished.

"Must be a lot of cattle in that bunch," mused the young inventor, "but I shouldn't think they'd trot them so on a warm day like this. Maybe they're stampeded. If they are I've got to look out." This idea caused him some alarm.

He tried to peer through the dust-cloud, but could not. Nearer and nearer it came. Tom kept on, taking care to get as far to the side of the road as he could. Then from the midst of the enveloping mass came the sound of a steady "chug-chug."

"It's a motor-cycle!" exclaimed Tom. "He must have his muffler wide open, and that's kicking up as much dust as the wheels do. Whew! But whoever's on it will look like a clay image at the end of the line!"

Now that he knew it was a fellow-cyclist who was raising such a disturbance, Tom turned more toward the middle of the road. As yet he had not had a sight of the rider, but the explosions of the motor were louder. Suddenly, when the first advancing particles of dust reached him, almost making him sneeze, Tom caught sight of the rider. He was a man of middle age, and he was clinging to the handle-bars of the machine. The motor was going at full speed.

Tom quickly turned to one side, to avoid the worst of the dust. The motor-cyclist glanced at the youth, but this act nearly proved disastrous for him. He took his eyes from the road ahead for just a moment, and he did not see a large stone directly in his path. His front wheel hit it, and the heavy machine, which he could not control very well, skidded over toward the lad on the bicycle. The motor-cyclist bounced up in the air from the saddle, and nearly lost his hold on the handle-bars.

"Look out!" cried Tom. "You'll smash into me!"

"I'm--I'm--try--ing--not--to!" were the words that were rattled out of the middle-aged man.

Tom gave his wheel a desperate twist to get out of the way. The motor-cyclist tried to do the same, but the machine he was on appeared to want matters its own way. He came straight for Tom, and a disastrous collision might have resulted had not another stone been in the way. The front wheel hit this, and was swerved to one side. The motor-cycle flashed past Tom, just grazing his wheel, and then was lost to sight beyond in a cloud of dust that seemed to follow it like a halo.

"Why don't you learn to ride before you come out on the road!" cried Tom somewhat angrily.

Like an echo from the dust-cloud came floating back these words:

"I'm--try--ing--to!" Then the sound of the explosions became fainter.

"Well, he's got lots to learn yet!" exclaimed Tom. "That's twice to-day I've nearly been run down. I expect I'd better look out for the third time. They say that's always fatal," and the lad leaped from his wheel. "Wonder if he bent any of my spokes?" the young inventor continued as he inspected his bicycle.