Chapter XX. On Time
 

Close around the electric auto crowded the members of the hold- up gang. Their eyes seemed to glare through the holes in their black masks. Instantly Tom thought of the other occasion when he was halted by masked figures. Could these, by any possibility, be the same individuals? Was this a trick of Andy Foger and his cronies?

Tom tried to pierce through the disguises. Clearly the persons were men--not boys--and they wore the ragged clothes of tramps. Also, there was an air of dogged determination about them.

"Well, are you going to shell out?" asked the leader, taking a step nearer, "or will we have to take it?"

"Bless my very existence! You don't mean to say that you're going to take the money--I mean how do you know we have any money?" and Mr. Damon hastily corrected himself. "What right have you to stop us in this way? Don't you know that every minute counts? We are in a hurry."

"I know it," spoke the leading masked figure with a laugh. "I know you have considerable money in that shebang, and I know what you hope to do with it, prevent the run on the Shopton National Bank. But we need that money as much as some other people and, what's more, we're going to have it! Come on, shell out!"

"Oh, why didn't we bring a gun!" lamented Mr. Damon in a low voice to Tom. "Isn't there anything we can do? Can't you give them an electric shock, Tom?"

"I'm afraid not. If it wasn't for that hay wagon we could turn on the current and make a run for it. But we'd only go into the ditch if we tried to pass now."

The load of hay was down the road, but as Tom looked he noticed a curious thing. It seemed to be nearer than it was when the attack of the masked men came. The wagon actually seemed to have backed up. Once more the thought came to the lad that possibly the load of fodder might be one of the factors on which the thieves counted. They might have used it to make the auto halt, and the man, or men, on it were probably in collusion with the footpads. There was no doubt about it, the load of hay was coming nearer, backing up instead of moving away. Tom couldn't understand it. He gave a swift glance at the robbers. They had not appeared to notice this, or, if they had, they gave no sign. -

"Then we can't do anything," murmured Mr. Damon.

"I don't see that we can," replied the young inventor in a low voice.

"And the money we worked so hard to get won't do the bank any good," and Mr. Damon sighed.

"It's tough luck," agreed Tom.

"Come now, fork over that cash!" called the leader, advancing still closer. "None of that talk between you there. If you think you can work some trick on us you're mistaken. We're desperate men, and we're well armed. The first show of resistance you make, and we shoot--get that, fellows?" he added to his followers, and they nodded grimly.

"Well," remarked Mr. Damon with an air of submission, "I only want to warn you that you are acting illegally, and that you are perpetrating a desperate crime."

"Oh, we know that all right," answered one of the men, and Tom gave a start. He was sure he had heard that voice before. He tried to remember it--tried to penetrate the disguise --but he could not.

"I'll give you ten seconds more to hand over that bag of money," went on the leader. "If you don't, we'll take it and some of you may get hurt in the process."

There seemed nothing else to do. With a white face, but with anger showing in his eyes Mr. Damon reached down to get the valise. Tom had retained his grip of the steering wheel, and the starting lever. He hoped, at the last minute, he might see a chance to dash away, and escape, but that load of hay was in the path. He noted that it was now quite near, but the thieves paid no attention to it.

Tom might have reversed the power, and sent his machine backward, but he could not see to steer it if he went in that direction, and he would soon have gone into the ditch. There was nothing to do save to hand over the cash, it seemed.

Mr. Damon had the bag raised from the car, and the leader of the thieves was reaching up for it, when there came a sudden interruption.

From the load of hay there sounded a fusillade of pistol shots, cracking out with viciousness. This was instantly followed by the appearance of three men who came running from around the load of hay, down the road toward the thieves. Each man carried a pitchfork, and as they ran, one of the trio shouted:

"Right at 'em, boys! Jab your hay forks clean through the scoundrels! By Heck, I guess we'll show 'em we know how t' tackle a hold-up gang as well as the next fellow! Right at 'em now! Charge 'em! Stick your forks right through 'em!" Again there sounded a fusillade of pistol shots.

The thieves turned as one man, and glanced at the relief so unexpectedly approaching. They gave one look at the three determined looking farmers, with their sharp, glittering pitchforks, and then, without a word, they turned and fled, leaping into the bushes that lined the roadway. The underbrush closed after them and they were hidden from sight.

On came the three farmers, waving their effective weapons, the pistol shots still ringing out from the load of hay. Tom could not understand it, and could see no one firing--could detect no smoke.

"Are they gone? Did they rob ye?" asked the foremost of the trio, a burly, grizzled farmer. Bust my buttons, but I guess we skeered 'em all right!"

"Bless my shoe buttons, but you certainly have!" cried Mr. Damon, descending from the automobile, and wringing the hand of the farmer, while Tom, thrust the bag of money under his legs and waited further developments. The pistol shots rang out until one of the men called:

"That'll do, Bub! We've skeered 'em like Mrs. Zenoby's pet cat! You needn't crack that whip any more."

"Whip!" cried Tom. "Was that a whip?"

"That's what it was," explained the leading farmer. "Bub Armstrong, my nephew, can crack it to beat th' band," and as if in proof of this there emerged from behind the load of hay a small lad, carrying a large whip, to which he gave a few trial cracks, like pistol shots, as if to show his ability.

"It's all right, Bub," his uncle assured him. "We made 'em run."

"But I don't exactly understand," spoke Mr. Damon. "I thought you were in league with those thieves, stopping us as you did with your big load."

"So did I," admitted Tom.

"Ha! Ha!" laughed the farmer. "That's a pretty good joke. Excuse me for laughin'. My name's Lyon, Jethro Lyon, of Salina Township, an' these is my two sons, Ade and Burt. You see we're on our way to Shopton, an' my nephew, Bub, he went along. We thought you was some of them sassy automobile fellers at first when you hollered to us you wanted to pass. Then when we looked back, we seen them burglars goin' t' rob you, at least that's what we suspicioned," and he paused suggestively.

"That was it," Tom said.

"Wa'al, when we seen that, we held a sort of consultation on thet load of hay, where they couldn't see us. It was so big you know," he needlessly explained. "Wa'al, we calcalated we could help you, so I jest quietly backed up, until we was near enough. I told Bub to take the long whip, an' crack it for all he was wuth, so's it would sound like reinforcements approachin' with guns, an' he done it."

"He certainly done it," added Burt.

"Wa'al," resumed Mr. Lyon, "then me an my sons we jest slipped down off the front seat, an' come a runnin' with our pitchforks. I reckoned them burglars would run when they see us an' heard us, an' they done so."

"Yep, they done so," added Ade, like an echo.

"I can't tell you how much obliged we are to you," said Mr. Damon. "We have sixty thousand dollars in this valise, and they would have had it in another minute, and the bank would have failed."

"Sixty thousand dollars!" gasped Mr. Lyon, and his sons and nephew echoed the words. Mr. Damon briefly explained about the money, and he and the young inventor again thanked their rescuers, who had so unexpectedly, and in such a novel manner, put the thieves to flight.

"An' you've got t' git t' Shopton before three o'clock with thet cash?" asked Mr. Lyon.

"That's what we hoped to do," replied Tom "but I'm afraid we won't now. It's half past two, and

"Don't say another word," interrupted Mr. Lyon. "I know what ye mean. My hay's in the road. But don't let that worry ye none. I'll pull out of your road in a jiffy, an' if we do go down in th' ditch, why we can throw off part of th' load, lighten th' wagon, an' pull out again. You've got t' hustle if ye git t' Shopton by three o'clock."

"I can do it with a clear road," declared Tom, confidently.

"Then ye'll have th' clear road," Mr. Lyon assured him. "Come boys, let's git th' hay t' one side."

The farmers pulled into the ditch. As they had feared the wagon went in almost to the hubs, but they did not mind, and, even as Tom and Mr. Damon shot past them, they fell to work tossing off part of the fodder, to lighten the wagon. The young inventor and his companion waved a grateful farewell to them as they fairly tore past, for Tom had turned on almost the full current.

"Do you suppose that was the Happy Harry gang, or some members of it who were not captured and sent to jail?" asked Mr. Damon.

"I don't believe so," answered the lad, shaking his head. "Maybe they didn't really want to rob us. Perhaps they only wanted to delay us so we wouldn't get to the bank on time."

"Bless my top knot, you may be right!" cried Mr. Damon.

Further conversation became difficult, as they struck a rough part of the road, where the vehicle swayed and jolted to an alarming degree. But Tom never slackened pace. On and on they rushed, Mr. Damon frequently looking at his watch.

"We've got twenty minutes left," he remarked as they came out on the smooth stretch of road, that led directly into Shopton.

Then Tom turned all the reserve power into the motor. The machinery almost groaned as the current surged into the wires, but it took up the load, and the electric car, swaying more than ever, dashed ahead with its burden of wealth.

Now they were in the town, now speeding down the street leading to the bank. One or two policemen shouted after them, for they were violating the speed laws, but it was no time to stop for that. On and on they dashed.

They came in sight of the bank. A long line of persons was still in front. They seemed more excited than in the morning, for the hour of three was approaching, and they feared the bank would close its doors, never to open them again.

"The run is still on," observed Mr. Damon.

"But it will soon be over," predicted Tom.

Some news of the errand of the automobile must have penetrated the crowd, for as Tom swung past the front entrance to the bank, to go up the rear alley, he was greeted with a cheer.

"They're got the cash!" a man cried. "I'm satisfied now. I don't draw out my deposit."

"I want to see the cash before I'll believe it," said another.

Tom slowed up to make the turn into the alley. As he did so he glanced across the street to the new bank. In the window stood Andy Foger and his father. There was a look of surprise on their faces as they saw the arrival of the powerful car, and, Tom fancied, also a look of chagrin.

Up the alley went the car, police keeping the crowd from following. The porter was at the door. So, also, was Mr. Pendergast and Mr. Swift, while some of the other officers were grouped behind them.

"Did you get the money?" gasped the president.

"We did," answered Tom. "Are we on time, Dad?"

"Just on time, my boy! They're paying out the last of the cash now! You're on time, thank fortune!"