Chapter 9. The Runaway Auto
 

Had the inventors of the Red Cloud desired, they could have made considerable money by giving further exhibitions at the Blakeville Aero Carnival, and at others which were to be held in the near future at adjoining cities. The fame of the new machine had spread, and there were many invitations to compete for prizes.

But Tom and Mr. Sharp wished to try their skill in a long flight, and at the close of the Blakeville exhibition they started for Shopton, arriving there without mishap, though Tom more than half hoped that they might happen to strike the tower of a certain school. I needn't specify where.

The first thing to be done was to complete the fitting-up of the car, or cabin. No berths had, as yet, been put in, and these were first installed after the Red Cloud was in her shed. Then an electrical heating and cooking apparatus was fitted in; some additional machinery, tanks for carrying water, and chemicals for making the gas, boxes of provisions, various measuring instruments and other supplies were put in the proper places, until the cabin was filled almost to its capacity. Of course particular attention had been paid to the ship proper, and every portion was gone over until Mr. Sharp was sure it was in shape for a long flight.

"Now the question is," he said to Tom one evening, "who shall we take with us? You and I will go, of course, but I'd like one more. I wonder if your father can't be induced to accompany us? He seemed to like the trial trip."

"I'll ask him to-morrow," said the lad. "He's very busy to-night. If he doesn't care about it, maybe Garret Jackson will go."

"I'm afraid not. He's too timid."

"I'd like to take Ned Newton, but he can't get any more time away from the bank. I guess we'll have to depend on dad."

But, to the surprise of Tom and Mr. Sharp, the aged inventor shook his head when the subject was broached to him next day.

"Why won't you go, dad?" asked his son.

"I'll tell you," replied Mr. Swift. "I was keeping it a secret until I had made some advance in what I am engaged upon. But I don't want to go because I am on the verge of perfecting a new apparatus for submarine boats. It will revolutionize travel under the water, and I don't want to leave home until I finish it. There is another point to be considered. The government has offered a prize for an under-water boat of a new type, and I wish to try for it."

"So that's what you've been working on, eh, dad?" asked his son.

"That's it, and, much as I should like to accompany you, I don't feel free to go. My mind would be distracted, and I need to concentrate myself on this invention. It will produce the most wonderful results, I'm sure. Besides, the government prize is no small one. It is fifty thousand dollars for a successful boat."

Mr. Swift told something more about his submarine, but, as I expect to treat of that in another book, I will not dwell on it here, as I know you are anxious to learn what happened on the trip of the Red Cloud.

"Well," remarked Mr. Sharp, somewhat dubiously, "I wonder who we can get to go? We need someone besides you and I, Tom."

"I s'pose I could get Eradicate Sampson, and his mule Boomerange," replied the lad with a smile. "Yet I don't know-"

At that instant there was a tremendous racket outside. The loud puffing of an automobile could be heard, but mingled with it was the crash of wood, and then the whole house seemed jarred and shaken.

"Is it an earthquake?" exclaimed Mr. Swift, springing to his feet, and rushing to the library windows.

"Something's happened!" cried Tom.

"Maybe an explosion of the airship gas!" yelled Mr. Sharp, making ready to run to the balloon shed. But there was no need. The crashing of wood ceased, and, above the puffing of an auto could be heard a voice exclaiming

"Bless my very existence! Bless my cats and dogs! Good gracious! But I never meant to do this!"

Tom, his father and Mr. Sharp rushed to the long, low windows that opened on the veranda. There, on the porch, which it had mounted by way of the steps, tearing away part of the railing, was a large touring car; and, sitting at the steering wheel, in a dazed sort of manner, was Mr. Wakefield Damon.

"Bless my shirt studs!" he went on feebly. "But I have done it now!"

"What's the matter?" cried Tom, hastening up to him. "What happened? Are you hurt?"

"Hurt? Not a bit of it! Bless my moonstone!

It's the most lucky escape I ever had! But I've damaged your porch, and I haven't done my machine any good. Do you see anything of another machine chasing me?"

Tom looked puzzled, but glanced up and down, the road. Far down the highway could be discerned a cloud of dust, and, from the midst of it came a faint "chug-chug."

"Looks like an auto down there," he said.

"Thank goodness! Bless my trousers, but I've escaped 'em!" cried the eccentric man from whom Tom had purchased his motor-cycle.

"Escaped who?" asked Mr. Swift.

"Those men. They were after me. But I may as well get out and explain. Dear me! However will I ever get my car off your porch?" and Mr. Damon seemed quite distressed.

"Never mind," answered Tom. "We can manage that. Tell us what happened."

"Exactly," replied Mr. Damon, growing calmer, "Bless my shoe buttons, but I had a fright, two of them, in fact.

"You see," he went on, "I was out partly on pleasure and partly on business. The pleasure consisted in riding in my auto, which my physician recommended for my health. The business consisted in bringing to the Shopton Bank a large amount of cash. Well, I deposited it all right, but, as I came out I saw some men hanging around. I didn't like their looks, and I saw them eyeing me rather sharply. I thought I had seen them before and, sure enough I had. Two of the men belonged to that Happy Harry gang. I".

Tom made a quick motion of a caution, pointing to his father, but it was not necessary, as Mr. Swift was absently-mindedly calculating an a piece of paper he had taken from his pocket, and had not heard what Mr. Damon said. The latter, however, knew what Tom meant, and went on.

"Well, I didn't like the looks of these men, and when I saw them sizing me up, evidently thinking I had drawn money out instead of putting it in, I decided to give them the slip. I got in my auto, but I was startled to see them get in their car. I headed for here, as I was coming to pay you a visit, anyhow, and the mysterious men kept after me. It became a regular race. I put on all the speed I could and headed for your house, Tom, for I thought you would help me. I went faster and faster, and so did they. They were almost up to me, and I was just thinking of slowing down to turn in here, when I lost control of my machine, and-well, I did turn in here, but not exactly as I intended. Bless my gaiters! I came in with rather more of a rush than I expected. It was awful-positively awful, I assure you. You've no idea how nervous I was. But I escaped those scoundrels, for they rushed on when they saw what I had done-smashed the porch railing".

"Probably they thought you'd smash them," observed Tom with a laugh. "But why did they follow you?"

"Can't imagine! Haven't the least idea. Bless my spark-plug, but they might have imagined I had money. Anyhow I'm glad I escaped them!"

"It's lucky you weren't hurt," said Mr. Sharp.

"Oh, me? Bless my existence! I'm always having narrow escapes." Mr. Damon caught sight of the Red Cloud which was out in front of the big shed. "Bless my heart! What's that?" he added.

"Our new airship," answered Tom proudly. "We are just planning a long trip in it, but we can't find a third member of the party to go along."

"A third member!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Do you really mean it?"

"We do."

"Bless my shoe laces! Will you take me along?"

"Do you mean that?" asked Tom in turn, foreseeing a way out of their difficulties.

"I certainly do," answered the eccentric man. "I am much interested in airships, and I might as well die up in the clouds as any other way. Certainly I prefer it to being smashed up in an auto. Will you take me?"

"Of course!" cried Tom heartily, and Mr. Sharp nodded an assent. Then Tom drew Mr. Damon to one side. "We'll arrange the trip in a few minutes," the lad said. "Tell me more about those mysterious men, please."