Chapter XXII. In a Ditch
 

Through the streets of Shopton went Tom Swift and his friends. News of the big contest the young inventor was about to take part in, had circulated around town, and there were not wanting many to wish him good luck. The lad responded smilingly to the farewells he received. As they passed the bank, Ned Newton came out on the steps.

"Wish I was going along," he called.

"So do I," replied Tom. "How's everything? Is the bank all right since the run?" for he had not had time to pay much attention to the institution since his memorable race against time, to get the money.

"Stronger and better than ever," was Ned's answer, as he came to the curb, where Tom slowed up. "I hear," he added in a whisper, "that the other fellows are going out of business--Foger and his crowd you know. They loaned money on unsecured notes to make a good showing, and now they can't get it back But we're all right. Hope you win the race."

"So do I."

"What will a certain person do while you're away?" went on Ned, with a wink.

"I don't know what you mean," replied Tom, trying not to blush. "Do you mean my dad or Mrs. Baggert?"

"Neither, you old hypocrite you! I meant Miss Mary Nestor."

"Oh, hadn't you heard?" inquired Tom innocently. "She is going to Long Island to visit some friends, and she'll be at the race."

"You lucky dog," murmured Ned with a laugh, as he went into the bank.

Once more the electric auto started off, and was soon on the quiet country road, where Tom speeded it up moderately. He hoped to be able to make the entire distance to the shore cottage on the single charge of current he had put into the battery at home, and, as there was no special need for haste, he wanted to save his power. The machine was running smoothly, and seemed able to make a long race against time

The travelers ate lunch that day at Pendleton, a town some distance from Shopton. They had covered a substantial part of their trip. After a brief rest they started on again. Tom had planned to spend two days and one night on the road, hoping to be able to reach the shore cottage on the evening of the second day. There, after recharging the battery, he would spend a night, or two, and proceed to the track, ready for the race.

They found the roads fairly good, with bad stretches here and there, which made it necessary for them to slow down. This delayed them, and they found the shadows lengthening, and darkness approaching, when they were still several miles from Burgfield, where they intended to sleep.

"Will it be all right to travel at night?" asked Mr. Damon, a bit nervously.

"Why, are you thinking of hold-up men?" inquired Mr. Sharp.

"No, but I was wondering about the condition of the roads," replied the eccentric man. "We don't want to run into a rock, or collide with something."

"I guess this will light up the road far enough in advance, so that we can see where we are going," suggested Tom, as he switched on the powerful electric search-light. Though it was not dark enough to illuminate the highway to the best advantage, the powerful gleam shone dazzlingly in front of the swiftly moving auto.

"I guess that will show up every pebble in the road," commented the balloonist. It's very powerful."

Tom turned off the light, as, until it was darker, he could see to better advantage unaided by it. He slowed down the speed somewhat, but was still going at a good rate.

"There's a bridge somewhere about here," remarked the lad, when they had gone on a mile further. I remember seeing it on my road map. It's not very strong, and we'll have to run slow over it."

"Bless my gizzard, I hope we don't go through it!" cried Mr. Damon. "Is your car very heavy, Tom?"

"Not heavy enough to break the bridge. Ah, there it is. Guess I'll turn on the light so we can see what we're doing."

Just ahead of them loomed up the super-structure of a bridge, and Tom turned the searchlight switch. At the instant he did so, whether he did not keep a steady hand on the steering wheel, or whether the auto went into a rut from which it could not be turned, did not immediately develop, but the car suddenly shot from the straight road, and swerved to one side. There was a lurch, and the front wheels sank down.

"Look out! We're going into the river!" yelled Mr. Damon.

Tom jammed on the brakes and shut off the current. The auto came to a sudden stop. The young inventor turned the searchlight downward, to illuminate the ground directly in front of the car.

"Are we in the river?" asked Mr. Sharp.

"No," replied Tom in great chagrin. "We're in a muddy ditch. One at the side of the road. Wheels in over the hubs! There should have been a guard rail here. We're stuck for fair!"