Chapter XXIII. Tom is Pursued
 

Tom was so excited that he hardly knew what to do. His first thought was to keep out of sight of the man in the boat, for the young inventor did not want the criminals to suspect that he was on their trail. To that end he ran back until he knew he could not be seen from the lake. There he paused and peered through the bushes. He caught a glimpse of the man in the motor-boat. The craft was making fast time across the water.

"He didn't see me," murmured Tom. "Lucky I saw him first. Now what had I better do?"

It was a hard question to answer. If he only had some one with whom to consult he would have felt better, but he knew he had to rely on himself. Tom was a resourceful lad, and he had often before been obliged to depend on his wits. But this time very much was at stake, and a false move might ruin everything.

"This is certainly the house," went on Tom, "and that man in the boat is one of the fellows who helped rob me. Now the next thing to do is to find out if the others of the gang are in the old mansion, and, if they are, to see if dad's model and papers are there. Then the next thing to do will he to get our things away, and I fancy I'll have no easy job."

Well might Tom think this, for the men with whom he had to deal were desperate characters, who had already dared much to accomplish their ends, and who would do more before they would suffer defeat. Still, they under-estimated the pluck of the lad who was pitted against them.

"I might as well proceed on a certain plan, and have some system about this affair," reasoned the lad. "Dad is a great believer in system, so I'll lay out a plan and see how nearly I can follow it. Let's see--what is the first thing to do?"

Tom considered a moment, going over the whole situation in his mind. Then he went on, talking to himself alone there in the woods:

"It seems to me the first thing to do is to find out if the men are in the house. To do that I've got to get closer and look in through a window. Now, how to get closer?"

He considered that problem from all sides.

"It will hardly do to approach from the lake shore," he reasoned. "for if they have a motor-boat and a dock, there must be a path from the house to the water. If there is a path people are likely to walk up or down it at any minute. The man in the boat might come back unexpectedly and catch me. No, I can't risk approaching from the lake shore. I've got to work my way up to the house by going through the woods. That much is settled. Now to approach the house, and when I get within seeing distance I'll settle the next point. One thing at a time is a good rule, as dad used to say. Poor dad! I do hope I can get his model and papers back for him."

Tom, who had been sitting on a log under a bush, staring at the lake, arose. He was feeling rather weak and faint, and was at a loss to account for it, until he remembered that he had had no dinner.

"And I'm not likely to get any," he remarked. "I'm not going to eat until I see who's in that house. Maybe I won't then, and where supper is coming from I don't know. But this is too important to be considered in the same breath with a meal. Here goes."

Cautiously Tom made his way forward, taking care not to make too much disturbance in the bushes. He had been on hunting trips, and knew the value of silence in the woods. He had no paths to follow, but he had noted the position of the sun, and though that luminary was now sinking lower and lower in the west, he could see the gleam of it through the trees, and knew in which direction from it lay the deserted mansion.

Tom moved slowly, and stopped every now and then to listen. All the sounds he heard were those made by the creatures of the woods-- birds, squirrels and rabbits. He went forward for half an hour, though in that time he did not cover much ground, and he was just beginning to think that the house must be near at hand when through a fringe of bushes he saw the old mansion. It stood in the midst of what had once been a fine park, but which was now overgrown with weeds and tangled briars. The paths that led to the house were almost out of sight, and the once beautiful home was partly in ruins.

"I guess I can sneak up there and take a look in one of the windows," thought the young inventor. He was about to advance, when he suddenly stopped. He heard some one or some thing coming around the corner of the mansion. A moment later a man came into view, and Tom easily recognized him as one of those who had been in the automobile. The heart of the young inventor beat so hard that he was afraid the man would hear it, and Tom crouched down in the bushes to keep out of sight. The man evidently did not suspect the presence of a stranger, for, though he cast sharp glances into the tangled undergrowth that fringed the house like a hedge, he did not seek to investigate further. He walked slowly on, making a circuit of the grounds. Tom remained hidden for several minutes, and was about to proceed again, when the man reappeared. Then Tom saw the reason for it.

"He's on guard!" the lad said to himself. "He's doing sentry duty. I can't approach the house when he's there."

For an instant Tom felt a bitter disappointment. He had hoped to be able to carry out his plan as he had mapped it. Now he would have to make a change.

"I'll have to wait until night," he thought. "Then I can sneak up and look in. The guard won't see me after dark. But it's going to be no fun to stay here, without anything to eat. Still, I've got to do it."

He remained where he was in the bushes. Several times, before the sun set, the man doing sentry duty made the circuit of the house, and Tom noted that occasionally he was gone for a long period. He reasoned that the man had gone into the mansion to confer with his confederates.

"If I only knew what was going on in there," thought Tom. "Maybe, after all, the men haven't got the model and papers here. Yet, if they haven't, why are they staying in the old house? I must get a look in and see what's going on. Lucky there are no shades to the windows. I wish it would get dark."

It seemed that the sun would never go down and give place to dusk, but finally Tom, crouching in his hiding place, saw the shadows grow longer and longer, and finally the twilight of the woods gave place to a density that was hard to penetrate. Tom waited some time to see if the guard kept up the circuit, but with the approach of night the man seemed to have gone into the house. Tom saw a light gleam out from the lonely mansion. It came from a window on the ground floor.

"There's my chance!" exclaimed the lad, and, crawling from his hiding place, he advanced cautiously toward it.

Tom went forward only a few feet at a time, pausing almost every other step to listen. He heard no sounds, and was reassured. Nearer and nearer he came to the old house. The gleam of the light fell upon his face, and fearful that some one might be looking from the window, he shifted his course, so as to come up from one side. Slowly, very slowly he advanced, until he was right under the window. Then he found that it was too high up to admit of his looking in. He felt about until he had a stone to stand on.

Softly he drew himself up inch by inch. He could hear the murmur of voices in the room. Now the top of his head was on a level with the sill. A few more inches and his eyes could take in the room and the occupants. He was scarcely breathing. Up, up he raised himself until he could look into the apartment, and the sight which met his eyes nearly caused him to lose his hold and topple backward. For grouped around a table in a big room were the three men whom he had seen in the automobile. But what attracted his attention more than the sight of the men was an object on the table. It was the stolen model! The men were inspecting it, and operating it, as he could see. One of the trio had a bundle of papers in his hand, and Tom was sure they were the ones stolen from him. But there could be no doubt about the model of the turbine motor. There it was in plain sight. He had tracked the thieves to their hiding place.

Then, as he watched, Tom saw one of the men produce from under the table a box, into which the model was placed. The papers were next put in, and a cover was nailed on. Then the men appeared to consult among themselves.

By their gestures Tom concluded that they were debating where to hide the box. One man pointed toward the lake, and another toward the forest. Tom was edging himself up farther, in order to see better, and, if possible, catch their words, when his foot slipped, and he made a slight noise. Instantly the men turned toward the window, but Tom had stooped down out of sight, just in time.

A moment later, however, he heard some one approaching through the woods behind him, and a voice called out:

"What are you doing? Get away from there!"

Rapid footsteps sounded, and Tom, in a panic, turned and fled, with an unknown pursuer after him.