Chapter VIII. A Blinding Flash
 

Stumbling on through the dark woods, led by his captors, Tom tried to pierce the gloom and identify the persons who had firm grips on either side of him. But it was useless. A little light sifted down from the starlit sky above, but it was not sufficient. The young inventor was beginning to think, after all, that he had fallen into the hands of the Happy Harry gang, and he knew that if this was so he need expect no mercy.

But two things were against this belief. One was that the principal members of the gang were still in jail, or at least they were supposed to be, and another was that there were too many of the captors. Happy Harry's crowd never numbered so many.

"Maybe they're highwaymen," thought our hero, as he was dragged along "But that can't be," he reasoned further. "If they wanted to rob me they'd have done it back there in the road, and not brought me off here in the woods. Besides, I haven't anything for them to steal."

Suddenly Tom stumbled over a projecting root, and nearly fell, dragging along with him the person who had hold of his left arm.

"Look out there! What's the matter with you?" exclaimed one of the throng quickly, and at the sound of the voice Tom started.

"Andy Foger!" cried the young inventor, as he recovered himself, for he had recognized the voice of the red-haired bully. "What do you mean by holding me up in this way?" he demanded.

"Quiet!" urged a voice in his ear, and the tones were unfamiliar. "Mention no names!"

"I'm on to your game!" retorted Tom. "I know you're here, Andy, and Sam and Pete; and Jack Reynolds and Sid Holton," and he named two rather loose-charactered lads, who were often in the company of Andy and his cronies. "You'd better quit this nonsense," Tom went on. "I'll cause the arrest of all of you if you make trouble for me. I know who you are now!"

"You think you do," answered the voice in his ear, and the young inventor concluded that it must be some lad whom he did not know. "Nor is this nonsense," the other went on. "You are about to receive the punishment due you."

Our hero did not answer, but he was doing some hard thinking. He wondered why Andy and his crowd had captured him.

Suddenly the blackness of the woods was illuminated by the fitful gleam of a distant fire. Tom could see more plainly now, and he managed to count about ten dusky figures hurrying along, four being close to him, to prevent his escape, and the others running on ahead. The light became stronger, and, a moment later the prisoner and his captors emerged into a little clearing, where a fire was burning. Two figures, masked with black cloth, as were all in the crowd, stood about the blaze, putting on sticks of wood.

"Did you get him?" asked one of these figures eagerly.

"Yes, they got me, Sam Snedecker," answered Tom quickly, recognizing Sam's tones. "And they'll wish they hadn't before I'm done with them."

"Quiet!" ordered an unknown voice. "Members of the Deep Forest Throng, the prisoner is here!" the lad went on.

"'Tis well, bind the captive to the sacrificial tree," was the response from some one in the crowd.

Tom laughed. He was at ease now, for he recognized that those who had taken him prisoner were all lads of Andy's character. Most of them were Shopton youths, but some, evidently, were strangers in town. Tom felt he had little to fear.

"Bring him over here," ordered one, and Tom cried out:

"You wouldn't be giving those orders, Andy Foger, if my arms weren't tied. And if you'll untie me, I'll fight any two of you at once," offered the young inventor fiercely, for he hated the humiliation to which he was being subjected.

"Don't do it! Don't untie him!" begged some one.

"No danger, they won't. They're afraid to, Pete Bailey," replied Tom quickly, for he had recognized the voice of the other one of Andy's particular cronies.

"Aw, he knows who we are," whispered Sam, but not so low but that our hero heard him.

"No matter," was Andy's retort. "Let's go ahead with it. Tie him to that tree."

It was useless for Tom to struggle. He was bound too tightly by the rope, and the crowd was too many for him. In a few minutes he was securely fastened to a tree, not far from the camp-fire, which was replenished from time to time.

"Now for the judgment!" called one of the masked lads, in what he meant to be a sepulchral tone. "What is the charge against the prisoner? Brother Number One of the Deep Forest Throng, what is your accusation?"

"He's a regular snob, that's what's the trouble," answered Andy Foger, though whether he was "Brother Number One," did not appear. "He's too fresh and--and--"

"I'll make you wish you felt fresh when I get hold of you, Andy," murmured Tom.

"Quiet!" cried a tall lad. "What's the next charge?"

"He keeps an old colored man on guard at his place," was the answer, and Tom had no difficulty in recognizing the voice of Sid Holton. "The coon throws whitewash all over us. I got some of it."

"You wouldn't have, if you'd minded your own business," retorted Tom. "It served you right!"

"What is the verdict on the prisoner?" asked one who seemed to be the leader.

"I say let's tar and feather him!" cried Andy suddenly. "There's a barrel of tar back in the woods here, and we can get some feathers from a chicken coop. That would make him so he wouldn't be so uppish, I guess!"

"That's right! Tar and feathers!" exclaimed several.

Our hero's heart sank. He was not afraid, but he did not relish the indignity that was proposed. He resolved to fight to the last ounce of his strength against the masked lads.

"Can we get a kettle to heat the tar in?" asked some one.

"We'll find one," answered Sam Snedecker. "Come on, let's do it. You'll look pretty, Tom Swift, when we're through with you," he exulted.

Tom did not answer, but there was fierce anger in his heart. The tar and feather proposal seemed to meet with general favor.

"Members of the Deep Forest Throng, we will hold a consultation," proposed the leader, in his assumed deep voice. "Come over here, to one side. Brother Number Six, guard the prisoner well."

"There ain't no need to," answered a lad who had been instructed to mount guard over Tom. "He's tied so tight he can't move. I want to hear what you say."

"Very well then," assented the leader, "But look to his bonds."

The lad made a hasty examination of the ropes binding the young inventor to the tree, and Tom was glad that the examination was a hasty one. For he feared the guard might discover that one hand had been worked nearly free. The young inventor had done this while he leered at his captors.

Tom was not going to submit tamely to the nonsense, and from the moment he had been tied, he had been trying to get loose. He had nearly succeeded in freeing one hand when the crowd of masked boys moved off to one side, where they presently began to talk in excited whispers.

"I wonder how they came to catch me," thought the prisoner, as he worked feverishly to further loosen the ropes. "This looks as if it was a put-up job, with the masks, and everything." Later he learned that the idea was the outcome of a proposal of one of the new arrivals in town. He had organized the "Deep Forest Throng," as a sort of secret society, and Andy and his cronies had been induced to join. It was Andy's proposal to capture Tom, though, and, having seen him depart for Mansburg on his motor- cycle, and knowing that he would return along a road that ran near the woods where the Throng met, suggested that they take Tom captive. The idea was enthusiastically received, and Andy and his cronies thought they saw a chance to be revenged.

Tom, while he picked at the ropes, listened to what the boys were saying. He heard frequent mention of tar and feathers, and began to believe, that unless he could get free, while they were off there consulting, he might be forced to submit to the humiliating ordeal.

He managed to get one hand comparatively free, so that he could move it about, but then he struck several hard knots, and could make no further progress. The conference seemed on the point of breaking up.

"One of you go for a big kettle to boil the tar in," ordered the leader, "and the rest of you dig up some feathers."

"I must get loose!" thought Tom desperately. "If they try to tar and feather me it will be a risky business. I've got to get loose! They may burn me severely!"

But, though he tried with all his strength, the ropes would not loosen another bit. He had one hand free, and that was all. The crowd was moving back toward him.

"My knife!" thought the captive quickly. "If I can reach that in my pocket I can cut the ropes! Once I get loose I'll fight the whole crowd!"

He managed to get his free hand into his pocket. His fingers touched something. It was not his knife, and, for a moment he felt a pang of disappointment. Then, as he realized what it was that he had grasped, a new idea came to him.

"This will be better than the knife!" he thought exultantly. The crowd of lads was now surrounding him, some distance from the fire, which burned in front of the captive.

"Sentence has been passed upon you," remarked the leader. "Prepare to meet thy doom! Get the materials, brothers!"

"One moment!" called Tom, for he wanted the crowd all present to witness what he was about to do. "I'll give you one chance to let me go peaceably. If you don't--"

"Well, what will you do?" demanded Andy sneeringly, as he pulled his mask further over his face. "I guess you won't do anything, Tom Swift."

"I'll give you one chance to let me go, and I'll agree to say nothing about this joke," went on Tom. "If you don't I'll blow this place up!"

For a moment there was a silence.

"Ha! Ha! Ho! Ho!" laughed Sam Snedecker. "Listen to him! He'll blow the place up! I'd like to see you do it! You can't get loose in the first place, and you haven't anything to blow it up with in the second. I'd like to see you do it; hey, fellers?"

"Sure," came the answering chorus.

"Would you?" asked Tom quickly. "Then watch. Stand back if you don't want to get hurt, and remember that I gave you a chance to let me go!"

Tom made a rapid motion with the hand he had gotten loose. He threw something to ward the blazing fire, which was now burning well. Something white sailed through the air, and fell amid the hot embers.

There was a moment's pause, and then a blinding flash of blue fire lighted up the woods, and a dull rumble, as when gun-powder is lighted in the open followed. A great cloud of white smoke arose, as the vivid blue glare died away, and it seemed as if a great wind swept over the place. Several of the masked lads were knocked down by the explosion, and when the rumble died away, and deep blackness succeeded the intense blue light, there came cries of pain and terror. The fire had been scattered, and extinguished by the explosion which Tom, though still bound to the tree had caused to happen in the midst of the Deep Forest Throng. Then, as the smoke rolled away, Andy Foger cried:

"Come on, fellows! Something's happened. I guess a volcano blew up!"