Chapter 24. The Raid
 

"Look for a good place to land!" cried Mr. Sharp to Tom. "Any small, level place will do. Turn on the gas full power as soon as you feel the first contact, and then shut it off so as to hold her down. Then jump out and take a hand in the fight!"

"That's right," cried the sheriff. "Fight's the word! They're breaking from cover now," he added, as he looked over the side of the cabin, from one of the windows. "The rascals have taken the alarm!"

The airship was descending toward a little glade in the woods surrounding the old picnic ground. Men, mostly of the tramp sort, could be seen running to and fro.

"I hope my deputies close in promptly," murmured the sheriff. "There's a bigger bunch there than I counted on."

>From the appearance of the gang rushing about it seemed as if there were at least fifty of them. Some of the fellows caught sight of the airship, and, with yells, pointed upward.

Nearer and nearer to the earth settled the Red Cloud. The criminals in the camp were running wildly about. Several squads of them darted through the woods, only to come hurriedly back, where they called to their companions.

"Ha! My men are evidently on the job!" exclaimed the sheriff. "They are turning the rascals back!"

Some of the gang were so alarmed at the sight of the great airship settling down on their camp, that they could only stand and stare at it. Others were gathering sticks and stones, as if for resistance, and some could be seen to have weapons. Off to one side was a small hut, rather better than the rest of the tumbledown shacks in which the tramps lived. Tom noticed this, and saw several men gathered about it. One seemed familiar to the lad. He called the attention of Mr. Damn to the fellow.

"Do you know him?" asked Tom eagerly.

"Bless my very existence! If it isn't Anson Morse! One of the gang!" cried the eccentric man.

"That's what I thought," agreed Tom. "The bank robbers are here," he added, to the sheriff.

"If we only recover the money we'll be doing well," remarked Mr. Sharp.

Suddenly there came a shout from the fringe of woods surrounding the camp, and an instant later there burst from the bushes a number of men.

"My posse!" cried the sheriff. "We ought to be down now!"

The airship was a hundred feet above the ground, but Tom, opening wider the gas outlet, sent the craft more quickly down. Then, just as it touched the earth, he forced a mass of vapor into the container, making the ship buoyant so as to reduce the shock.

An instant later the ship was stationary.

Out leaped the sheriff.

"Give it to'em, men!" he shouted.

With a yell his men responded, and fired a volley in the air.

"Come on, Tom!" called Mr. Sharp. "We'll make for the hut where you saw Morse."

"I'll come too! I'll come too!" cried Mr. Damon, rushing along as fast as he could, a seltzer bottle in either hand.

Tom's chief interest was to reach the men he suspected were the bank robbers. The lad dashed through the woods toward the hut near which he had seen Morse. He and Mr. Sharp reached it about the same time. As they came in front of it out dashed Happy Harry, the tramp. He was followed by Morse and the man named Featherton. The latter carried a black valise.

"Hey! Drop that!" shouted Mr. Sharp.

"Drop nothing!" yelled the man.

"Go on! Go on!" urged Morse. "Take to the woods! We'll deal with these fellows!"

"Oh, you will, eh?" shouted Tom, and remembering his football days he made a dive between Morse and Happy Harry for the man with the bag, which he guessed contained the stolen money. The lad made a good tackle, and grabbed Featherton about the legs. He went down in a heap, with Tom on top. Our hero was feeling about for the valise, when he felt a stunning blow on the back of his head. He turned over quickly to see Morse in the act of delivering a second kick. Tom grew faint, and dimly saw the leader of the gang reach down for the valise.

This gave our hero sudden energy. He was not going to lose everything, when it was just within his grasp. Conquering, by a strong effort, his feeling of dizziness, he scrambled to his feet, and made a grab for Morse. The latter fended him off, but Tom came savagely back at him, all his fighting blood up. The effects of the cowardly blow were passing off.

The lad managed to get one hand on the handle of the bag.

"Let go!" cried Morse, and he dealt Tom a blow in the face. It staggered the youth, but he held on grimly, and raised his left hand and arm as a guard. At the same time he endeavored to twist the valise loose from Morse's hold. The man raised his foot to kick Tom, but at that moment there was a curious hissing sound, and a stream of frothy liquid shot over the lad's head right into the face of the man, blinding him.

"Ha! Take that! And more of it!" shouted Mr. Damon, and a second stream of seltzer squirted into the face of Morse.

With a yell of rage he let go his hold of the satchel, and Tom staggered back with it. The lad saw Mr. Damon rushing toward the now disabled leader, playing both bottles of seltzer on him. Then, when all the liquid was gone the eccentric man began to beat Morse over the head and shoulders with the heavy bottles until the scoundrel begged for mercy.

Tom was congratulating himself on his success in getting the bag when Happy Harry, the tramp, rushed at him.

"I guess I'll take that!" he roared, and, wheeling Tom around, at the same time striking him full in the face, the ugly man made a grab for the valise.

His hand had hardly touched it before he went down like a log, the sound of a powerful blow causing Tom to look up. He saw Mr. Sharp standing over the prostrate tramp, who had been cleanly knocked out.

"Are you all right, Tom?" asked the balloonist.

"Yes-trifle dizzy, that's all-I've got the money!"

"Are you sure?"

Tom opened the valise. A glance was enough to show that it was stuffed with bills.

Happy Harry showed signs of coming to, and Mr. Sharp, with a few turns of a rope he had brought along, soon secured him. Morse was too exhausted to fight more, for the seltzer entering his mouth and nose, had deprived him of breath, and he fell an easy prisoner to Mr. Damon.

Morse was soon tied up. The other members of the Happy Harry gang had escaped.

Meanwhile the sheriff and his men were having a fight with the crowd of tramps, but as the posse was determined and the criminals mostly of the class known as "hobos," the battle was not a very severe one. Several of the sheriff's men were slightly injured, however, and a few of the tramps escaped.

"A most successful raid," commented the sheriff, when quiet was restored, and a number of prisoners were lined up, all tied securely. "Did you get the money?"

"Almost all of it," answered Tom, who, now that Morse and Happy Harry were securely tied, had busied himself, with the aid of Mr. Sharp and Mr. Damon, in counting the bills. "Only about two thousand dollars are missing. I think the bank will be glad enough to charge that to profit and loss."

"I guess so," added the sheriff. "I'm certainly much obliged to you for the use of your airship. Otherwise the raid wouldn't have been so successful. Well, now we'll get the prisoners to jail."

It was necessary to hire rigs from nearby farmers to accomplish this. As for Morse and Happy Harry, they were placed in the airship, and, under guard of the sheriff and two deputies, were taken to the county seat. The criminals were too dazed over the rough treatment they had received, and over their sudden capture, to notice the fact of riding through the air to jail.

"Now for home!" cried Tom, when the prisoners had been disposed of. "Home to clear our names and take this money to the bank!"

"And receive the reward," added Mr. Sharp, with a smile. "Don't forget that!"

"Oh, yes, and I'll see that you get a share too, Mr. Durkin," went on Tom. "Only for your aid we never would have gotten these men and the money."

"Oh, I guess we're about even on that score," responded the official. "I'm glad to break up that gang."

The next morning Tom and his friends started for home in the Red Cloud.

They took with them evidence as to the guilt of the two men-Morse and Happy Harry. The men confessed that they and their pals had robbed the bank of Shopton, the night before Tom and his friends sailed on their trip. In fact that was the object for which the gang hung around Shopton. After securing their booty they had gone to the camp of the tramps at Shagmon, where they hid, hoping they would not be traced. But the words Tom had overheard had been their undoing. The men who arrived at the camp just before the raid were the same ones the young inventor heard talking in the office building. They had come to get their share of the loot, which Morse held, and with which he tried so desperately to get away. Tom's injuries were not serious and did not bother him after being treated by a physician.