Chapter XIX. Stopped on the Road
 

"Did Mr. Chase make any objection to giving you the cash?" asked Tom, as he shoved the controller over another notch, and caused the motor to make a higher note in its song of speed.

"Oh, no, he was very nice about it," replied Mr. Damon. "He said he hoped our bank would pull through. Said if we needed more cash we could have it."

It was nearly one o'clock, and they had the worst part of the journey yet to go. Thirty miles of stiff roads lay between them and Shopton, the last five and the first five being fairly good, with, here and there, soft spots.

Up hill and down went the electric auto. At every opportunity Tom let out all the speed he could draw from the motor, but there were many times when he had to slow down. He had just made the ascent of a steep hill, and was turning into a fairly good road, skirting the edge of a steep cliff, when there came a sharp report.

"Bless my soul! That's a fuse, I'm sure of it!" cried Mr. Damon.

"No," announced Tom, as he quickly shut off the power. "It's a puncture. One of the inner tubes of the tire has been pierced. I was afraid of that tube."

"What have you got to do; put on a new tire?" asked Mr. Damon.

"No, I'm going to put on a new wheel. I carry two spare ones with tires all ready inflated. It won't take long."

But the process of changing wheels consumed more time than Tom anticipated for the nut was stuck, and he and Mr. Damon had to exert all their strength before they could loosen it. When the new wheel was in place ten minutes had been lost.

"Hold on now, I'm going to speed her!" cried Tom, when they were once more in their seats, and speed the machine he did. The road was rough, but despite this the lad turned on almost full power. Over the bumps they went, around curves and into rain- washed ruts careening from side to side, and throwing Mr. Damon about, as he expressed it afterward, "like a bean inside of a football." As for the young inventor his grasp of the steering wheel, and the manner in which he could brace himself against the foot pedals, held him more firmly in place. On and on they rushed, covering mile after mile, and approaching Shopton where so much depended on their arrival.

Good and bad stretches of the road alternated, but now that Tom had seen of what mettle his car was made, he did not spare it as much as he had on the first trip. He saw that his machine would stand hard knocks, and the way the battery and motor was behaving was a joy to him. He knew that if he could make that eighty-mile run in safety he stood a good chance of winning the prize, for no harder test could have been devised.

But the race was still far from won. There was a particularly unsafe stretch of road yet to be covered, and then would come a smooth highway into Shopton.

"Ten miles more," observed Mr Damon, snapping shut his big gold watch. "Ten miles more, and it's a quarter of two now. We ought to be there at a quarter after, and that will be in good time, eh, Tom?"

"I think so, but I don't know about this piece of road we're coming to. It seems worse than when we passed over it this morning."

As he spoke the auto began to slow up, for the wheels had struck some heavy sand, and it was necessary to reduce the current. Tom turned back the controller handle, but watched with eager eyes for a sign that the roadbed was harder, so that he could increase speed.

As the car turned around a curve, passing through a lonely stretch of country, with woods on either side of the highway, Tom glancing up, uttered a cry of astonishment.

"What's the matter; something gone wrong?" asked his companion.

For answer Tom pointed. There, just ahead of them, was a big load of hay, and it was evident that the driver, was in no particular hurry.

"We can't pass that without getting in over. our hubs!" cried Tom. "If we turn out the side ditches are so soft that we'll need help to pull out, and the road is so narrow for several miles that we'll have to trail along behind that fellow."

"Bless my check book!" cried Mr. Damon. "Are we going to lose, after all, on account of a load of hay? No, I'll buy it from him first, at double the market price, tip it over, set fire to it, toss it in the ditch, and then we can go past!"

"Maybe that will answer," retorted Tom, smiling grimly.

He put on a little more speed, and was soon close up behind the load of hay, ringing his electric bell as a warning.

"I say!" called Mr. Damon to the unseen driver, "can't you turn out and let us pass?"

"Ha! Hum! Wa'al I guess not!" came the answer, in unmistakable farmer's accents. "You automobile fellers is too gol-hanged smart, racin' along th' roads. I've got just as good a right here as you fellers have, by heck!" The driver did not show himself.

"We know that," responded Tom, as quickly as he could, for he did not want to anger the man. "But our machine is so heavy that if we turn into the ditch I'm afraid we'll be mired."

"Huh! So'll I," was the retort from the unseen driver.. "Think I want t' spile my load of hay?"

"But you have wide tires on, and you wouldn't sink in far," answered the young inventor. "Besides, it's very necessary that we get past. A great deal depends on our speed."

"So it does on mine," was the reply. "Ef I git t' market late I'll have t' stay all night, an' spend money on a hotel bill."

"I'll pay it! I'll pay your bill if you'll only pull out!" cried Mr. Damon. "I'll give you a hundred dollars

He suddenly ceased speaking. From the bushes along the road sprang several ragged, masked figures. Each one, aiming his weapon at Tom, said in a low voice, that could not have been heard by the driver of the hay wagon:

"Slow up your machine, young feller! We want to speak with you, and don't you make a loud noise, or it won't be healthy for you!"

"Why of all the-!" began Mr. Damon, but another of the footpads leveling his weapon at the eccentric man growled:

"Dry up, if you don't want to get shot!"

Mr. Damon subsided. Discretion was very plainly the better part of valor. Tom had shut off the current. The load of hay continued on ahead. Tom thought perhaps the driver of it might have been in collusion with the thieves, to cause the auto to slow up.

"What do you want with us?" asked the young inventor, trying to speak calmly, but finding it a hard task, with a revolver pointed at him.

"You know what we want," exclaimed the leader, in a low voice. "We want that cash you got from the bank, and we're going to have it! Come, now, shell out!" and he advanced toward the automobile.