Chapter V. A Midnight Encounter
 

The moment Tom disappeared behind his machine shop, Sam Snedecker began a desperate struggle to escape from Ned Newton. Now Ned was a muscular lad, but his work in the bank was confining, and he did not have the chance to get out doors and exercise, as Sam had. Consequently Ned had his hands full in holding to the squirming crony of Andy Foger.

"You let me go!" demanded Sam, as he tried to twist loose.

"Not if I know it!" panted Ned.

Sam gave a sudden twist. Ned's foot slipped in the grass, and in a moment he went down, with Sam on top of him. Still he did not let go, and, finding he was still a prisoner Sam adopted new tactics.

Using his fists Sam began to pound Ned, but the bank employee, though suffering, would not call for help, to summon back Tom, who was, by this time, at the rear of the shop, looking about. Silently in the dark the two fought, and Ned found that Sam was getting away. Then Ned's hand came in contact with Sam's ear. It was the misfortune of the bully to have rather a large hearing apparatus, and once Ned got his fingers on an ear there was room enough to afford a good grip. He closed his hold tightly, and began to twist. This was too much for Sam. He set up a lusty howl.

"Wow! Ouch! Let go!" he pleaded, and he ceased to pound Ned, and no longer tried to escape. Tom came back on the run.

"What's the matter?" he cried. Then his light flashed on the two prostrate lads, and he understood without asking any further questions.

"Get up!" he cried, seizing Sam by the back of his neck, and yanking him to his feet. Ned arose, and secured a better grip on the sneaking lad.

"What's up?" demanded Tom, and Ned explained, following it by the question:

"See any more of 'em?"

"No, I guess he was here all alone," replied the young inventor. "What do you mean by sneaking around here this time of night?" he demanded of the captive.

"Don't you wish you knew?" was Sam's answer, with a leer. He realized that he had a certain advantage.

"You'd better tell before I turn you over to the police!" said Tom, sternly.

"You--you wouldn't do that; would you?" and Sam's voice that had been bold, became shaky.

"You were trespassing on our property, and that's against the law," declared Tom. "We have signs posted, warning people to keep off."

"I didn't mean any harm," whined Sam.

"Then what were you doing here, at this hour?"

"I was just taking a short cut home. I was out riding with Andy in his auto, and it broke down. I had to walk home, and I came this way. I didn't know you didn't allow people to cross your back lot. I wasn't doin' anything."

Tom hesitated. Sam might be telling the truth, but it was doubtful.

"What happened to Andy's auto?" the young inventor asked.

"He broke a wheel, going over a big stone on Berk's hill. He went to tell some one in the repair shop to go after the car, and I came on home. You've got no right to arrest me."

"I ought to, on general principles," commented Tom. "Well, skip out, and don't you come around here again. I'm going to get a savage bull dog, and the first one who comes sneaking around here after dark will be sorry. Move along now!"

Tom and Ned released their holds of Sam, and the latter lost no time in obeying the injunction to make himself scarce. He was soon lost to sight in the darkness.

"Think he was up to some mischief?" asked Ned.

"I'm almost sure of it," replied Tom, "but I can't see anything wrong. I guess we were too quick for him. I believe he, Andy and Pete Bailey tried to put up some job on me."

"Maybe they wanted to damage your new battery or car," suggested Ned.

"Hardly that. The car hasn't been started yet, and as for the battery, no one knows of it outside of you and my friends here. I'm keeping it secret. Well, if I'm going to take you home I'd better get a move on. Wait here and I'll run out Mr. Damon's car."

In a short time Tom was guiding the machine over the road to Shopton, Ned on the seat beside him. The young assistant cashier lived about a mile the other side of the village, and the two chums were soon at his house. Asking his friend to come and see him when he had a chance. Ned bid his chum good night, and the young inventor started back home.

He was driving slowly along, thinking more of his new invention than anything else, even more than of the mysterious visit of Sam Snedecker, when the lights on Mr. Damon's car flashed upon something big, black and bulky on the road just ahead of him. Tom, brought suddenly out of his fit of musing, jammed on the brakes, and steered to one side. Then he saw that the object was a stalled auto. He had only time to note this when a voice hailed him:

"Have you a tire pump you could lend us? Ours doesn't work, and we have had a blowout."

There was something about the voice that was strangely familiar, and Tom was wondering where he had heard it before, when into the glare of the lamps on his machine stepped Mr. Foger--Andy's father!

"Why, Mr. Foger!" exclaimed Tom. "I didn't know it was you."

"Oh, it's Tom Swift," remarked the man, and he did not seem especially pleased.

"Hey! What's that?" cried another voice, which Tom had no difficulty in recognizing as belonging to Andy. "What's the matter, Dad?"

"Why it happens to be your--ahem! It's Tom Swift in this other auto," went on Mr. Foger. "I didn't know you had a car," he added.

"I haven't," answered the lad. "This belongs to Mr. Damon. But can you see to fix your tire in the dark?" for Mr. Foger and his son had no lamps lighted.

"Oh, we have it all fixed," declared the man, "and, just as we were going to pump it up out lamps went out. Then we found that our pump wouldn't work. If you have one I would be obliged for the use of it," and he spoke somewhat stiffly.

"Certainly," agreed Tom, cheerfully, for he had no special grudge against Mr. Foger, though had he known Andy's father's plans, perhaps our hero would not have so readily aided him. The young inventor got down, removed one of his oil lamps in order that there might be some light on the operation, and then brought over his pump.

"I heard you had an accident," said Tom, a chain of thoughts being rapidly forged in his mind, as he thought of what Sam had told him.

"You heard of it?" repeated Mr. Foger, while Andy was busy pumping up the tire.

"Yes, a friend who was out riding with you said you had broken a wheel on Berk's hill. But I see he was slightly wrong. You're a good way from Berk's hill, and it's a tire that is broken, not a wheel."

"But I don't understand," said Mr. Foger. "No friend has been out riding with us. My son and I were out on a business trip, and--"

"Come on, pop. I've got it all pumped up. Jump in. There's your pump, Tom Swift. Much obliged," muttered Andy hastily. It was very evident that he wanted to prevent any further conversation between his parent and Tom.

"But I don't understand," went on the banker, clearly puzzled. "What friend gave you such information, Mr.--er--Tom Swift?"

"Sam Snedecker," replied the lad quickly. "I caught him sneaking around my machine shop about an hour ago, and when I asked him what he was doing he said he'd been out riding with Andy, and that they broke a wheel. I'm glad it was only a blown- out tire," and Tom's voice had a curious note in it.

"But there must be some mistake," insisted Mr. Foger. "Sam Snedecker was not riding with us this evening. We have been over to Waterfield--my son and I, and--"

"Come on, pop!" cried Andy desperately. "We must hurry home. Mom will be worried."

"Yes, I think she will. But I can't understand why Sam should say such a thing. However, we are much obliged for the use of your pump, Swift, and--"

But Andy prevented any further talk by starting the car with the muffler open, making a great racket, and he hurriedly drove off, almost before his father was seated, leaving Tom standing there in the road, beside his pump and lantern.

"So," mused the young inventor, "there's some game on. Sam wasn't with Andy, yet Andy evidently knew where Sam was, or he wouldn't have been so anxious to choke off talk. Mr. Foger knew nothing of Sam, naturally. But why have Andy and his father been on a midnight trip to Waterfield?"

That last question caused Tom to adopt a new line of thought.

"Waterfield," he mused. "That's where Mr. Damon lives. Mr. Damon is a heavy depositor in the old bank. Mr. Foger is going to start a new bank. I wonder if there's any connection there? This is getting mysterious. I must keep my eyes open. I never expected to meet Andy and his father tonight, any more than I expected to find Sam Snedecker sneaking around my shop, but it's a good thing I discovered both parties. I guess Andy must have had nervous prostration when I was talking to his father," and Tom grinned at the thought. Then, picking up the pump, and fastening the lantern in place, he drove Mr. Damon's auto slowly back home.

Tom said nothing to his father or Mr. Sharp, the next morning, about the incidents of the previous night. In the first place he could not exactly understand them, and he wanted to devote more time to thinking of them, before he mentioned the matter to his parent. Another reason was that Mr. Swift was a very nervous person, and the least thing out of the ordinary worried him. So the young inventor concluded to keep quiet.

His first act, after going to look at the small motor, which was being run with the larger, experimental storage battery, was to get out pencil and paper.

"I've got to plan the electric auto now that my battery is in a fair way to success," he said, for he noted that the one cell he had constructed had done over twice as much mileage in proportion, as had the small battery. "I'll soon start building the car," mused Tom, "and then I'll enter it in the race. I must write to that touring club and find how much time I have."

All that morning the young inventor drew plan after plan for an electric runabout, and rejected them. Finally he threw aside paper and pencil and exclaimed:

"It's no use. I can't think to-day. I'm dwelling too much on what happened last night. I must clear my brain.

"I know what I'll do. I'll get in my motor-boat and take a run over to Waterfield to see Mr. Damon. Maybe he's home by this time. Then I can ask him what Mr. Foger wanted to see him about, if he did call."

It was a fine May morning, and Tom was soon in his boat, the Arrow, gliding over Lake Carlopa, the waters of which sparkled in the sun. As he speeded up his craft, the lad looked about, thinking he might catch sight of Andy Foger, for the bully also owned a boat, called the Red Streak and, more than once, in spite of the fact that Andy's craft was the more powerful, Tom had beaten him in impromptu races. But there was no sign of his rival this morning, and Tom kept on to Waterfield. He found that Mr. Damon had not yet returned home.

"So far I've had my run for nothing," mused the youth. "Well, I might as well spend the rest of the morning in the boat."

He swung his craft out into the lake, and headed back toward Mansburg, intending to run up to the head of the body of water, which offered so many attractions that beautiful morning.

As Tom passed a small dock he saw a girl just putting out in a rowboat. The figure looked familiar and, having nothing special to do, the lad steered over closer. His first view was confirmed, and he called out cheerfully:

"Good morning, Miss Nestor. Going for a row?"

"Oh! Mr. Swift!" exclaimed the girl with a blush. "I didn't hear you coming. You startled me."

"Yes, the engine runs quite silently since I fixed it," resumed Tom. "But where are you going?"

"I was going for a row," answered the girl, "but I have just discovered that one of the oar locks is broken, so I am not going for a row," and she laughed, showing her white, even teeth.

"That's too bad!" remarked the lad. "I don't suppose," he added doubtfully, "that I could induce you to accept a motor-boat as a substitute for a rowing craft, could I?" and he looked quizzically at her.

"Are you asking me that as a hypothetical question?" she inquired.

"Yes," said Tom, trying not to smile.

"Well, if you are asking for information, merely, I will say that I could he induced to make such a change," and her face was nearly as grave as that of the young inventor's.

"What inducement would have to be used?" he asked.

"Suppose you just ask me in plain English to come and have a ride?" she suggested.

"All right, I will!" exclaimed the youth.

"All right, then I'll come!" she retorted with a laugh, and a few minutes later the two were in the Arrow, making a pretty picture as they speeded up the lake.